MOSCOW - Russia is preparing to put lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on trial, even though he died in 2009, in the latest twist in a case that has become a byword for rampant Russian corruption and has severely strained U.S.-Russian relations.
The posthumous trial has already provoked outrage among rights groups who see the whistleblower's case as indicative of the rampant judicial abuse, skyrocketing graft, and blurred boundaries between the state and organized crime that have plagued Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
"The trial of a deceased person and the forcible involvement of his relatives is a dangerous precedent that would open a whole new chapter in Russia's worsening human rights record," Amnesty International said in a statement last week.
Prosecutors accuse Magnitsky and his former client, London-based investor William Browder, of a $230 million tax fraud carried out through subsidiaries of Browder's company, Hermitage Capital Management.
Magnitsky claimed in 2008 that the fraud was committed by an organized crime group who colluded with corrupt Interior Ministry to register themselves as the owners of three Hermitage subsidiaries, and then claim a $230 million tax rebate. He was arrested shortly after by the same officials and accused of stealing the money himself.
A year later, the 37-year-old Magnitsky died in jail of pancreatitis, after what supporters claim was a systematic torture campaign. A report by Russia's presidential human rights council found in July 2011 that Magnitsky had been repeatedly beaten and deliberately denied medical treatment.
"If they have the same investigators and judges try the case, then what are they going to say - 'we're guilty and we should be punished?' It's obvious what's going to happen," Magnitsky's mother, Nataliya Magnitskaya, told The Associated Press last week.
Russia's top court ruled shortly after Magnitsky's death that posthumous trials were allowed, with the intention of allowing relatives to clear their loved ones' names. Though neither Magnitsky's relatives nor Browder say they asked for charges to be refiled, prosecutors reopened his case just days after the ruling.
A Moscow court on Monday set preliminary hearings in the case for Feb. 18. Browder is being tried in absentia; he has not been to Russia since he was banned from entering the country in 2005.
"To try a dead man is beyond evil," Browder told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday. "This is a politically directed prosecution - Putin and (Prime Minister Dmitry) Medvedev have both directed, have sent the instructions for the outcome of this case."
Evidence collected by Browder on a website, Russian Untouchables, indicates that the officials accused by Magnitsky became substantially wealthier after the tax rebate, spending vastly in excess of their meager official salaries on international travel, luxury cars, and prime real estate in Dubai.
Officials in Switzerland, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are attempting to trace portions of the $230 million rebate to banks in those countries.
Last December, tensions between the U.S. and Russia flared when Congress passed a law named after Magnitsky sanctioning officials Browder accuses of involvement in the fraud.
Putin at that time said that Magnitsky died of a heart attack and accused Browder of politicizing his death to distract from his own crimes.
Russia responded to the U.S. law by banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans and dropping charges against a prison doctor on trial for negligence in Magnitsky's death.
Browder says he hopes the European Union will pass its own Magnitsky act by the end of the year.