Russia postpones start of trial of dead lawyer

MOSCOW, March 11 (Reuters) - A Russian court on Monday postponed until March 22 the start of the posthumous trial of a whistleblowing lawyer which human rights groups says is politically motivated and absurd.

Judge Igor Alisov announced the delay after no legal team showed up to defend Sergei Magnitsky at Moscow's Tverskoy Court, more than three years after he died in custody.

The court had appointed a lawyer to defend Magnitsky after his own lawyers and family refused to attend court proceedings. It was not immediately clear why Magnitsky's legal team had not attended, but they have had little time to prepare a defence.

Magnitsky's trial on charges of defrauding the state will be the first of a dead person in Russia and it has contributed to a deterioration in relations with the United States.

Magnitsky, who was working for London-based Hermitage Capital Management investment fund and was 37 when he died in November 2009, was jailed after accusing police and tax officials of a multimillion-dollar tax fraud.

His former employer, William Browder, says the charges against Magnitsky were a reprisal over the investigation and that he was murdered. Browder is also on trial but did not show up at the court.

The Kremlin's human rights council has said Magnitsky was probably beaten to death while in pre-trial detention but President Vladimir Putin says he died of heart failure.

The Kremlin has dismissed criticism of Russia's judiciary and says it does not interfere in legal cases.

U.S. lawmakers passed legislation last year that attempts to punish Russians who are involved in Magnitsky's case and are accused of violating human rights. Russia responded with similar moves to punish Americans suspected of violating human rights. (Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Writing by Thomas Grove, Editing by Timothy Heritage)