By Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian judge said on Friday the posthumous trial of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky would continue despite a protest from a court-appointed defense lawyer who argued the state had no right to try a dead man without his relatives' consent.
Judge Igor Alisov's decision appeared to underscore Russia's determination to press ahead with a trial that has caused an outcry among rights groups and added to Western concerns about human rights and the rule of law under President Vladimir Putin.
Magnitsky, a lawyer working for Hermitage Capital Management, once one of the biggest investors in Russia, was arrested shortly after accusing Russian officials of stealing $230 million from the state through fraudulent tax refunds.
He died in November 2009, after nearly a year in jail during which he said he was denied medical treatment. A Kremlin human rights council has aired suspicions he was beaten to death, but Putin has dismissed allegations of foul play.
Russia has abandoned investigations into Magnitsky's death, for which nobody has been held criminally responsible, and in 2011 reopened a tax evasion case against the dead lawyer despite opposition from his family.
Russia's first posthumous trial started last month.
Critics say it is an attempt by Putin's government to show the public that Magnitsky was a crook, not a hero, and to hit back at the United States for adopting legislation designed to punish Russians linked to his death.
"I have not found a single declaration from relatives requesting the case be reopened," said Nikolai Gerasimov, a lawyer appointed by the court to represent Magnitsky after his relatives refused to have anything to do with the trial.
FURTHER TENSIONS WITH U.S. LOOM
He echoed relatives of Magnitsky and other lawyers who say that Russian law does not allow prosecution of a deceased person without a request from the family, for the purpose of clearing the person posthumously of any wrongdoing.
"Because my participation contradicts the opinion and position of the defendant's relatives, I suggest that I do not have the right to participate in the trial," Gerasimov said in the courtroom, where the defendant's cage stood empty.
The judge, Alisov, said the court had already dealt with the issue of relatives' consent.
"We will continue in the same format," he said, and the hearing went ahead.
Gerasimov did not leave the courtroom, but sat down and doodled on a sheet of paper. A second appointed defense lawyer, Kirill Goncharov, said he supported Gerasimov but continued to participate, asking questions of a prosecution witness.
Hermitage owner William Browder, who is based in Britain, is being tried in absentia together with Magnitsky.
Browder has also refused to take part or appoint a defense team, saying the trial is a politically motivated effort to discredit him and Magnitsky and punish him for lobbying U.S. lawmakers to pass the Magnitsky Act in December.
The law requires the U.S. administration to bar Russians accused of involvement in Magnitsky's death and other alleged rights abuses from entering the United States and freeze any assets they hold there.
Under the law, the White House must publish by mid-April a list of Russians suspected of rights abuses or explain to Congress why their names can't be published. The reasons for not publishing must be tied to national security.
The release is all but certain to trigger angry reaction from Moscow, which was enraged when the law was first approved and has seen ties with Washington deteriorating over that, as well as other human rights and security disputes.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by Mike Collett-White)