By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian prosecutor asked a court on Wednesday to sentence the British former boss of late whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky to nine years in prison in a tax evasion trial that has been criticized by rights groups and Western governments.
William Browder, whose investment company Hermitage Capital Management was once the largest investor in Russia's equity market, is being tried in absentia, while Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail in 2009, is being prosecuted posthumously.
Browder has spearheaded an international campaign to expose corruption and human rights violations in Russia after the death of Magnitsky, a lawyer working for Hermitage who was investigating suspicions of a $230 million tax fraud.
Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 shortly after alleging that Russian officials were involved in the purported fraud, and died in prison nearly a year later while awaiting trial, causing an international uproar.
The Kremlin's own human rights council has said there was evidence suggesting Magnitsky was beaten to death. But President Vladimir Putin has dismissed allegations of foul play and told the nation last year that Magnitsky had died of heart failure.
The prosecutor asked the court to convict both defendants and sentence Browder to nine years in prison, but to close the case against Magnitsky after the verdict because he is dead, state-run news agency Rapsi reported.
A verdict is expected next week.
Browder has 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 legislation called the Magnitsky Act.
"This was the whole purpose - to get a court verdict to say he was guilty," Browder said by telephone from Britain.
"The entire trial is a Kafkaesque show trial. What it shows is the depths that the Putin regime will go to cover up its crimes. Sergei Magnitsky was murdered in Russian police custody for exposing a massive government corruption government scheme."
The Magnitsky Act, which bars Russians believed to have been involved in his death or other severe human rights abuses from entering the United States and freezes their assets there, was signed by President Barack Obama in December.
Putin signed a retaliatory law weeks later, and the exchanges of punitive legislation have strained relations.
Browder was barred from Russia in 2005 as Hermitage found itself under increasing official pressure after he aired vocal criticism of corporate governance at large Russian companies.
If he is sentenced, Russia's options for jailing Browder are limited. Interpol has refused to include him on its international search list after deciding that Russia's case against him was "of a predominantly political nature".
(Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)