A Russian court has postponed the start of the posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblowing lawyer who died in pre-trial custody in 2009.
Magnitsky is being prosecuted for defrauding the state in what would be the first time Russia has ever tried a dead person.
Amnesty International said the development sets a “dangerous precedent” while other human rights groups have dismissed the trial as both politically motivated and absurd.
Judge Igor Alisov on Monday delayed the trial to March 22 to give the court-appointed defence lawyers more time to study the evidence, more than three years after Magnitsky in police custody.
The Moscow’s Tverskoy Court had appointed a lawyer to defend Magnitsky after his own lawyers and family refused to attend court proceedings.
Magnitsky was jailed after accusing police and tax officials of a multimillion dollar tax fraud and the case has become a symbol of human rights violations in the country.
Beaten to death
Magnitsky’s employer says the charges against him were a reprisal and he was murdered, while the Kremlin’s own human rights council aired suspicions he was beaten to death.
“It’s inhuman to try a dead man. If I take part in this circus, I become an accomplice to this“
– Magnitsky’s mother Natalya
The circumstances of his demise led the US last year to bar entry to Russians accused of involvement in his case or in other rights abuses.
Critics say the trial is an attempt by President Vladimir Putin’s government to hit back at Washington and portray to the public taht Magnitsky was a criminal not a hero.
“It’s inhuman to try a dead man. If I take part in this circus, I become an accomplice to this,” Magnitsky’s mother Natalya said. “I won’t take part in the hearings.”
Moscow took the highly unusual step of reopening the investigation against Magnitsky in 2011, as international criticism of Russia over his death mounted.
“First they killed him, now they are dancing on his grave,” said a lawyer for Magnitsky’s family, Nikolai Gorokhov.
Contacted by the Reuters news agency, the court-appointed lawyer Nikolai Guerasimov declined to comment on the case.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also declined to comment.
Magnitsky died at the age of 37 after he said he was denied medical care during his 358 days in jail.
Putin said Magnitsky died of heart failure, but his former employer, London-based investment fund Hermitage Capital, said he was killed for testifying against officials he accused of a $230m theft through fraudulent tax refunds.
Hermitage owner William Browder is being tried in absentia alongside his former employee.
“Something happened in that prison that no one wants to talk about,” Zoya Svetova, an investigator for the Public Oversight Commission, the independent prison watchdog, that investigated Magnitsky’s death.
“Magnitsky became a symbol of the fight against corruption, and the goal of this trial is to show he is no symbol but just a criminal who didn’t pay his taxes,” she said.
“It is pure state propaganda because there is no point in trying a dead man.”