By Gabriela Baczynska
MOSCOW, Feb 15 (Reuters) - In a poorly lit basement theatre in central Moscow, actors play out a symbolic trial of Russia's justice system over its failure to protect an anti-corruption lawyer who died in custody.
Without costumes or a set, the actors in "One Hour and Eighteen Minutes" take on the roles of judges, an investigator, doctor and medical assistants, reciting lines cobbled together from legal documents, media and public pronouncements on the case of Sergei Magnitsky.
His death in 2009, while awaiting trial on charges of tax evasion and fraud, has outraged human rights campaigners who see it as an example of arbitrary justice in Russia, and contributed to a rift in U.S.-Russian relations.
A nervous giggle runs through the audience, perched on wooden chairs and benches, when an actor playing a judge says that the justice system is the only thing that is still working in Russia.
The audience is visibly taken aback when a second judge, who prolonged Magnitsky's detention four days before his death, dismisses accusations of acting inhumanly when she says the judge's role is not to act like a human being but as an executor of the state's authority.
"The most horrifying moment for me was this judge saying she is not a human because she is a judge. This is very frankly put and how things really are," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran Russian human rights campaigner.
"Nowadays, theatre based on documents, on real life here, is more telling and, unfortunately, more scary than thrillers."
No one has been convicted over the death of Magnitsky, who was arrested after accusing Russian police of stealing $230 million from the state in 2007 through fraudulent tax refunds.
But Russia is now pressing ahead with plans to stage a posthumous trial of the lawyer, putting a dead man in the dock.
This prompted Mikhail Ugarov, the director of Teatr.doc, to revive a play first staged in 2010 because it seemed to him that true justice was now more distant than ever.
"In the very heart of Russia a man is killed, and not by thieves and bandits, but by doctors and prison workers, people who are in general obliged to safeguard the lives of those arrested," Ugarov told Reuters.
"We used to think there would at least be some justice done, but it turned out completely the other way, it went horribly wrong. So our logic was that if they were not able to give justice to Magnitsky, we will instead."
Rights campaigners and critics of President Vladimir Putin say the Russian judiciary is weak and open to abuse by politicians, and suggest that the Kremlin uses it to intimidate or persecute adversaries.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied those accusations, saying the judiciary is completely independent and that the government does not intervene in legal cases.
"Judges are independent and subject only to the Constitution of the Russian Federation and the federal law," the Russian Justice Ministry said in response to a request to comment on the play.
The Kremlin also denies that there has been a crackdown on dissenters since Putin returned to the presidency last May, facing the largest protests since he first rose to power 13 years ago.
Magnitsky's prison death has, however, damaged Russia's image and, for critics of the Kremlin, come to symbolise what they see as the impunity of the Russian authorities and the dangers faced by those who challenge them.
It has also resulted in a political spat with Washington. The United States, in response to Magnitsky's treatment, passed legislation late last year that is designed to punish officials linked to his case as well as other Russians deemed rights violators.
Russia hit back with a law to punish Americans it suspects of similar abuses.
The play's title, "One Hour and Eighteen Minutes", alludes to the time just before Magnitsky died when he was left without medical help in his cell despite repeated complaints about his health deteriorating while in custody.
Putin said in December that Magnitsky died of a heart attack, but the head of the Kremlin's own human rights council had earlier said he was probably beaten to death.
Putin called the death a tragedy but said the late lawyer, who had two sons, was not tortured.
All the defendants in the symbolic court in the play deny any responsibility, saying it was not their job to help Magnitsky, that they were busy with other cases, or were paid too poorly to care. Some suggest he was asking for trouble.
In the play, the first judge at a pre-trial hearing denies a glass of water to Magnitsky, saying such requests are not his concern.
Later on, an investigator involved in the case laughs with contempt at the lawyer's repeated complaints about the conditions of Magnitsky's detention and lack of medical care, saying a prison is not meant to be comfortable.
One actor exclaims ironically: "A dead man is good for being tried, and should be, just like someone who is alive - or is even better for being tried." (Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Paul Casciato)