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Russia: Sergei Magnitsky is a dead man guilty

A court in Moscow has declared late lawyer Sergei Magnitsky guilty, in a case that has galvanized Western anger at alleged Russian rights abuses.

A Moscow court has taken the historic and unusual step of convicting a dead man — the late Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer believed to have uncovered evidence of mass state-sponsored theft before he was arrested and mysteriously died in police custody.

Magnitsky was convicted on Thursday of tax evasion, according to Russian news agencies — the same charges he leveled against tax authorities in 2007 after discovering what he claimed was a $230 million scam while working as an auditor for a private investment fund, Hermitage Capital Management.

But he was arrested in 2008 after authorities turned those accusations against him, and died a year later of internal injuries in a Moscow prison.

Magnitsky’s former boss, American-born Hermitage Capital chief executive William Browder, was also convicted Thursday and handed a nine-year prison sentence.

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The case has served as a rallying point for both domestic and Western criticism against Russiaand its legal system. It also sparked an international diplomatic row.

A law passed in the United States late last year, dubbed the “Magnitsky Act,” levels travel and economic sanctions against Russian officials believed to be involved in Magnitsky’s case and other instances of suspected human rights abuse.

The legislation enraged Russian officials, who swiftly retaliated with a ban on the adoption of Russian children by American families.

The Kremlin’s own human rights council found in 2011 that Magnitsky had been deliberately mistreated and beaten while in prison, but no officials have been successfully prosecuted.

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“This show trial confirms that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is ready to sacrifice his international credibility to protect corrupt officials who murdered an innocent lawyer and stole $230m from the Russian state,” Hermitage Capital said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

The verdict was announced in a downtown Moscow court as the defendant’s cage remained eerily empty. Browder, who currently lives in the United Kingdom, was sentenced in absentia.

The investment manager, who has vehemently denied any wrongdoing on both his and his former employee’s behalf, has led the high-profile charge to draw international attention to the case.