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Russian authorities went ahead Wednesday with the controversial posthumous trial of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky for tax evasion despite repeated protests by his family.
Magnitsky's family and their lawyers have boycotted the trial, which had to be repeatedly adjourned, but the latest hearing finally got underway at a Moscow court with witnesses accusing Magnitsky of resorting to various schemes to avoid taxes.
A black-clad guard at Moscow's Tverskoi district court stood not far from the symbolically empty defendant's cage with a bench inside, an AFP correspondent reported.
Anastasia Gerasimova, a witness representing the Federal Tax Service, accused Magnitsky and his employer William Browder, the Hermitage Capital hedge fund founder who is being tried in absentia, of using illegal schemes to receive tax breaks.
Their actions "inflicted damage on the budget at all its levels", Gerasimova, one of 39 prosecution witnesses in the case, said in court.
She said Browder was illegally enjoying tax benefits given to companies which employ disabled people, claiming he created a sham company which employed two people with disabilities.
"They were registered as financial analysts but did not do any work," said Gerasimova, noting she did not know Magnitsky or Browder personally. "Instead of a salary they received a small compensation for being on the books of that firm."
Another witness, Magnitsky's former colleague Konstantin Ponomaryov, said Magnitsky was initially against the scheme using disabled people but then began actively promoting it.
"I am very much disappointed with Magnitsky," said Ponomaryov, who in 1995-96 worked at Firestone Duncan, a legal consultancy for Browder's Hermitage Fund.
"I used to know him as a highly skilled specialist. But after my departure from the company he did not come up with anything better (than those schemes)," Ponomaryov said.
Browder, who is now based in London, responded to Wednesday's proceedings by saying that the tax authorities' own audit had detected no violations at Hermitage a decade ago.
"Given the current political direction of this case... it should be no surprise that Russian officials would reverse that opinion, giving preference to fabricated materials from police and the Russian security services," Brower said in an e-mail to AFP.
The trial kicked off last week after Russian investigators closed a probe into Magnitsky's death in 2009 aged 37, after he spent 11 months in squalid prisons, arguing there was no evidence of a crime.
Magnitsky claimed to have uncovered a massive fraud by Russian state officials. But shortly afterwards he was himself charged with the same tax evasion crimes he had alleged.
Browder and Magnitsky's relatives say Magnitsky, who suffered from a range of illnesses, was deliberately denied treatment and was tortured.
"The trial in Moscow's Tverskoi district court desecrates the memory of my son," his mother was quoted as saying in a statement by Hermitage.
"By using this illegal process, those who did away with my son, those who him of freedom, health and life itself, now want to take away his honest name and sling mud at him after his death," Natalia Magnitskaya was quoted as saying.
Two lawyers appointed by the state to represent Magnitsky declined to comment on Wednesday.
"Every time you ask the same thing. We are tired of answering your questions," one of the defence lawyers, Nikolai Gerasimov, told reporters after Wednesday's hearing was adjourned until April 1.
The Investigative Committee last week said it had closed a probe into his death after the only defendant on trial for medical negligence was acquitted.
Last year, the United States adopted a law placing sanctions on Russian officials deemed to have been implicated in Magnitsky's death, while Russia hit back with a law banning US adoptions of Russian children.
The trial comes amid signs that the Hermitage Fund, which is backed by banking giant HSBC, is winding down its operations.
But an HSBC spokesman told AFP that "the fund is not closed yet".