Just when you think the Russian legal system under President Vladimir Putin could not become more farcical, they invent an entirely new way to miscarry justice: a posthumous trial, complete with a conviction.
Anyone who has paid attention to Russia under Putin won’t be surprised to find little justice in their justice system. I have written before about the many reasons the business community would be wise to keep their distance from a country that has made clear that the rule of law is less important than the whims of the Kremlin.
Now, Russia has not only held its first posthumous trial, but it’s added a twist of irony. The deceased defendant, a whistle-blowing lawyer, was tried on charges of tax evasion. What did the defendant blow the whistle on? Tax evasion, of course - on a massive scale, by officials of the Putin government.
The prosecution’s logic is that of the playground. One kid says to another, “You’ve got cooties;” the second replies, “No, you do.” Only in this case, the second kid also clobbers the first with a brick, killing him.
That’s the approximate treatment that Russian officialdom meted out to Sergei Magnitsky.
Magnitsky died after being imprisoned for nearly a year without trial. Putin’s government insisted he died of heart failure, though evidence suggests his death may have been caused by denial of medical attention and possibly also due to torture while in prison. The international community has given Magnitsky’s information much more credit than Russian officials would like. The United States even passed a law bearing his name.
This helps explain one of the motivations for trying a man who is beyond the reach of Russian punishment; Magnitsky himself wasn’t the prosecution’s only target. One of the others was Magnitsky’s client William Browder. Browder, an investor who has been open about his past conflict with Putin’s government, has been intent on holding authorities responsible for Magnitsky’s mistreatment and death in prison. The official Russian response is the judicial equivalent of name-calling, labeling Browder himself a criminal. The court sentenced him in absentia to nine years in prison, but as Browder lives in Britain and Interpol has deemed Russia’s case against him purely a political one, the likelihood of Browder serving any of that time is low.
As I have observed in this space and others many times, Russia is not a fit place in which to do business. I simply do not understand those Western executives who refuse to draw the obvious lessons from the cases of Browder and Magnitsky. They seem to think Russia’s careless relationship with the law cannot affect them, despite all evidence to the contrary.
It is a final irony that Magnitsky’s conviction coincides with Putin’s stance as the world’s only effective protector of Edward J. Snowden. The Obama administration is prepared to move heaven and earth to win Snowden’s extradition, even at the cost of supplicating to Putin.
Imagine: We ask Russia’s strongman, fresh off his latest political prosecution, to hand over the man hailed by many across the world as a hero for exposing American behavior that the president would much rather not have disclosed (though he still says we should have a conversation about it). Meanwhile, Putin’s government is busy prosecuting the dead (not to mention the living, last week including a populist candidate for mayor of Moscow, Aleksei Navalny).
American justice is nothing like Russia’s, for which we can all be grateful. It will be very unfortunate if the administration insists on lowering itself to Putin’s level in order to get its hands on Snowden. As the Magnitsky conviction demonstrates, the depth to which we would be lowering ourselves is still hard to fathom.