Sergei Magnitsky trial: this is Putin’s kind of justice

The Guardian

In prosecuting a cadaver the message to Russians was clear: cross us and we’ll nail you, dead or alive.

It was an unusually bad week for Sergei Magnitsky. After a 16-month trial, the Russian accountant was found guilty of facilitating tax evasion by an investment fund for which he once worked, Hermitage Capital, to the tune of $17m. He was only charged because he had accused officials of a tax scam more than 13 times as lucrative, admittedly, but arbitrary legal processes are hardly unknown in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It was misfortunes of a more personal nature that made Magnitsky’s trial unusual. He was dead, having expired in official custody and entered his Moscow grave more than three-and-a-half years earlier.

The chief executive of Hermitage Capital, who was convicted in absentia with his dead colleague, was appalled. According to William Browder, “Putin has brought shame on Russia … for being the first western leader in 1,000 years to prosecute a dead man”. As a statement of history, that happened to be wrong – but the precedents bring credit to neither Putin nor the Russian legal system.

Trials of the dead were actually endemic across Europe for much of the last millennium, born out of half-understood notions of Roman law, and two European rulers became particularly keen on posthumous condemnations.

The future James I resorted to them on several occasions in Scotland: in 1600, for instance, he had two alleged assassins pickled in whisky, vinegar and allspice, put on trial, and then mutilated. Seventy years later, France’s Louis XIV enacted a statute that required all dead duellists, traitors and suicides to be tried for their crimes. Such trials were considered so important that dead defendants were guaranteed the right to counsel (in a law that simultaneously obliged living ones to speak for themselves), while cadavers of limited means were made eligible for legal aid. Any corpses that were found guilty – after due consideration of the evidence – had to be drawn to a gibbet and hung there by the feet for 24 hours, before being hurled into the town cesspit.

Moscow’s prosecutors and judges did not produce Magnitsky’s remains in court, but that very small mercy should not obscure the parallels that link his trial to the ritualised desecrations of centuries past. James and Louis were committed absolutists: James imagined that God had given him the power to rule by Divine Right, while Louis saw no distinction between himself and the state (“l’état – c’est moi”) – and their judicial pretensions arose directly from those quasi-totalitarian beliefs. The purpose of judging the dead was to “inflict terror on the living”, explained a French jurist in 1784, and the message of the Magnitsky trial was similarly blunt: cross us and we’ll nail you, dead or alive.

It remains to be seen how the target audience will respond. State officials have long sought to portray the Magnitsky affair as part of a western plot – the dead man was working for a foreign-owned company, after all – and Putin has expressed his contempt for a US statute that imposes travel and banking restrictions on 18 named individuals who are allegedly implicated in his death.

But the government cannot simply deny all wrongdoing, because its own investigation had to acknowledge that the 37-year-old died as a result of inadequate medical treatment. Independent human rights groups have meanwhile found that he suffered serious psychological and physical violence, up to and including torture; while Natalia Magnitskaya is challenging her son’s detention, death and posthumous condemnation before the European court of human rights.

In the circumstances Magnitsky’s conviction may turn out to be one travesty of justice too many. The rule of law often seems an abstract principle, and the importance of things like the presumption of innocence is easily obscured by a defendant’s imperfections. But when the person on trial is dead, the issues become simpler. A state that pursues its enemies beyond the grave is clearly out of control – and the need for legal limits is all but self-evident.

The ease with which prosecutions can serve to express power rather than investigate guilt is illustrated by Russia’s own history. Stalin’s show trials offer the most notorious examples, but an older case is arguably more relevant still. On 15 May 1591, the nine-year-old son of Ivan the Terrible was found fatally stabbed in Uglich, a small town on the Volga. Rumours quickly spread that he had been murdered on the orders of the jealous prince regent, and the bell of Uglich cathedral sounded a call to insurrection. The regional rebellion was quickly crushed, but its leaders did not face trial alone. The cathedral bell was charged as a co-defendant – and after hearing evidence, judges formally condemned it to be flogged, deprived of its clapper, and sent to Siberia.

It seems unlikely that Russian prosecutors will revive the punishment of inanimate objects any time soon, but Magnitsky’s prosecution suggests that the clock has started to run backwards. The rule of law collapses into expediency unless judges are independent and self-confident, and the evidence of such judges in Putin’s Russia are scant indeed. It is all too late for Magnitsky, in any event. All that one can hope is that Russia’s rulers allow him now to rest in peace – no matter how tempted they might be to display their power by punishing him even more. быстрые займы онлайн займы онлайн на карту срочно https://zp-pdl.com/fast-and-easy-payday-loans-online.php https://www.zp-pdl.com срочный займ на карту

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