Russian investigators have taken the unusual step of reopening a criminal probe for tax evasion against a dead lawyer who claimed to have uncovered a $230 million tax fraud scheme by corrupt police officers.
Sergei Magnitsky died of an untreated illness in prison in 2009 after spending almost a year in pretrial detention on charges of tax evasion filed by the same police officials he had accused of the tax fraud.
The case is being scrutinized as a litmus test for President Dmitry Medvedev's commitment to the rule of law. Pressured by Magnitsky's former employers and rights groups, the United States government has imposed travel restrictions on 60 Russian officials suspected of involvement in the death.
Magnitsky worked for Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund owned and run by U.S.-born investor William Browder.
Magnitsky had accused Interior Ministry officers of seizing ownership documents of three of Hermitage's subsidiaries in 2007, then using them to register their own people as owners and claim a $230 million tax return.
But in a reaction to a Constitutional Court decision last week allowing the review of criminal cases against deceased defendants for the first time, the tax evasion probe against Magnitsky has been reopened, General Prosecutors Office spokeswoman Marina Gridneva said Tuesday.
In many countries, cases cannot be reopened following a defendant's death, but Russia's top court ruled last week to allow the practice. The court's motion had been prompted by a plea of a car crash victim's family who sought to prove their relative's innocence.
Human rights activist and former Constitutional Court judge Tamara Morshchakova in an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency slammed the investigators' decision to reopen the criminal probe as "unconstitutional."
Morshchakova is a member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights that published a July report on Magnitsky's death, laying the blame on police investigators, prison officials and doctors.
Investor Browder decried the prosecutors' decision as "a direct reaction to the damning report of the president's Human Rights Council."
"They desperately need to fabricate an alternative version of the story, and they seem to think the best way to achieve that is through this criminal case against a dead man," he told The Associated Press.
But in a letter obtained by the AP, an Interior Ministry investigator said the ministry had found "no wrongdoing" by their staff.
The letter dated July 14 addressed to Browder's lawyer slammed the findings of the report, saying there are no indications of human rights violations.
The ministry's Boris Kibis _ one of the top officials President Medvedev has assigned to oversee a probe into Magnitsky's death _ said in the letter that he sees "no grounds to conduct any checks into the alleged wrongdoing of members of the investigative and operational team" that worked on the case.
The ministry has not replied to a request to verify the letter's authenticity.
A prominent human rights activist, Valery Borshchev, expressed confidence in an interview with the Interfax news agency that the fresh probe would prove the lawyer's innocence, "dealing a huge blow on those who launched this case and drove Magnitsky to death."
Nataliya Vasilyeva can be reached at http://twitter.com/NatVasilyevaAP