By Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia attempted but failed on Monday to start the trial of dead lawyer Sergei Magnitsky - a case that critics say the Kremlin is pursuing to discredit his allegations of embezzlement by government officials.
Magnitsky, who died in custody, is the first person to be tried posthumously in Russia. While his attendance was never on the cards, his defense team also failed to show up, leading to Judge Igor Alisov to postpone the trial until March 22.
"The defense team...believes that they have not yet fully acquainted themselves with the 60 volumes of case materials," Alisov said, looking down on the barred cage usually reserved for the accused and the empty seats where Magnitsky's lawyers should have sat.
Magnitsky is charged with tax evasion and fraud - similar to accusations that he had leveled against police and tax officials.
The trial is being held under a change in the law last year which critics say Putin has used to take revenge against Washington in a dispute over human rights that has been aggravated by the Magnitsky case.
No one has been held accountable for Magnitsky's death at the age of 37 in November 2009. The Kremlin's own human rights council has said he was probably beaten to death in detention but President Vladimir Putin says he died of heart failure.
The case against him was initially closed after his death. But it was reopened in a highly unusual move in 2011 as international criticism over his death - and Russia's apparent reluctance to hold anyone criminally responsible - mounted.
RELATIVES SAYS TRIAL INHUMAN AND ABSURD
The court had appointed a legal team to defend Magnitsky after his own lawyers and family refused to attend court proceedings, saying the case was absurd, intended to blacken Magnitsky's name and discredit the allegations he made.
"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 told Reuters.
The court-appointed lawyer, Nikolai Gerasimov, did not comment. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.
Humans rights groups say the case shows the lack of an independent judiciary in Russia but the Kremlin has dismissed criticism of Russia's legal system and says it does not interfere in legal cases.
Magnitsky's boss William Browder, head of Heritage Capital Management investment fund, is also being tried in absentia.
He lobbied for the passage of the so-called Magnitsky Act passed by the U.S. Congress last year which imposes visa bans on Russians accused of human rights violations and freezes their assets they hold in the United States.
Browder says the charges pressed against Magnitsky are meant as revenge for testifying against officials he accused of a $230-million theft through fraudulent tax refunds.
Moscow responded to the Magnitsky Act with similar legislation punishing Americans accused of human rights abuses, and has banned U.S. families from adopting Russian children.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Angus MacSwan)
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