THE BLOG

Russia Put Dead Man on Trial to Avoid Looking Silly

06/03/2013 15:43 GMT | Updated 05/05/2013 10:12 BST

On Monday 4 March a man called Sergei Magnitsky will go on trial in Moscow for fraud and tax evasion. If he's found guilty, it's not clear where Mr Magnitsky will serve his sentence, because he's been dead since 2009.

Now this is what I call a courtroom drama. Will the defence put their client on the stand, and risk submitting him to cross-examination - presumably via ouija board - or alternatively, will they insist on his right to remain silent?

Will Magnitsky get bail, or will the authorities consider him a flight risk?

Meanwhile, the preliminary hearings for the inquest of Alexander Litvinenko were going on in London last week. He was the Russian former intelligence agent who died of polonium poisoning in London in 2006. The British government is moving to have a lot of the evidence heard in secret on grounds of national security, but also apparently for fear of annoying the Russians and making it more difficult for British companies to do business in Russia.

That's the key thought to hold - the fear of of making it more difficult for British companies to do business in Russia.

OK, so a bit of background; Sergei Magnitsky - the dead man, was a lawyer working for a British based investment fund working in Russia, called Hermitage Capital. Basically it sounds like what happened was this: a bunch of Russian officials saw a successful company, fancied a piece of the action, and told them they owed more tax, which they would skim for themselves and stick in a Swiss bank. Then, when Hermitage refuses to pay up and their lawyer investigates what's going on, he gets arrested for committing the crime he's accusing the government officials of and dies in custody. Nothing suspicious there. According to the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights, he died in prison after being beaten up and then denied medical treatment when he developed pancreatitis. The same institution also found that the charges against him were fabricated. The charges he goes on trial for on Monday.

Which way will the case go? Will he be found guilty? If so, will the authorities find a sentence that will deter him from committing the same crime again? Or will they take into account the time he's already served (both dead and alive), assess the likelihood of him reoffending (I'm not an expert but I'd guess it's a low chance) and go less for punishment and more for rehabilitation? If found not guilty, will Vladimir Putin personally bring him back to life after wrestling a tiger and swimming with dolphins just before the next free and fair democratic elections?

Apparently the authorities might be willing to drop the charges if the Magnitsky family and Hermitage drop their own legal actions against the institutions they believe responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky. I'm trying to follow the logic here, and it seems to be that the Russians are worried about the embarrassment of a court case which might reveal institutional corruption, so instead of looking stupid, they prefer to put a dead man on trial.

Going back to the evidence disclosure in the Litvinenko inquest - the British government is worried about offending the Russians and causing trading conditions in Russia to get more difficult than running the risk of being shaken down and forced to pay millions in taxes they don't owe, and their lawyers getting killed if they investigate. Maybe I'm not cut out to be a businessman, because that already seems kind of difficult in my book.

But the good news is, the charges don't carry a capital sentence.