MOSCOW - Russia on Thursday opened a fraud trial against Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer whose prison death in 2009 led to the biggest US-Russia row in years, despite protests by the defence it was illegal to try a dead man.
The Magnitsky family defence lawyers refused to participate in an "unconstitutional" process against a dead man and the judge was forced to adjourn the hearing until the new year.
"The preliminary hearing into Magnitsky's case has been moved to January 28 due to the absence of the lawyers from the defence," the press service of the Tverskoy district court in Moscow told AFP.
In a curious coincidence, the same court is also hearing the case of the prison official accused of causing his death, Dmitry Kratov.
The Tverskoy district court is widely expected to acquit Kratov in a hearing Friday after prosecutors moved to drop charges against him this week.
Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 and spent nearly a year in squalid prison conditions, dying at the age of 37 of untreated illnesses. A report by the Kremlin human rights council last year said he was tortured and handcuffed in his final hours.
Before his arrest, the lawyer said he uncovered a tax scam worth 5.4 billion rubles ($235 million) against the company he worked for, investment fund Hermitage Capital, which involved interior ministry officials.
But he was then charged with the very crimes he claimed to have uncovered and was placed in pre-trial detention. The case was closed after his death but then reopened in August 2011.
Investigators had said in February they planned to put the dead man on trial. Russian prosecutors last month sent the case against Magnitsky to court.
Magnitsky and his former employer -- the head of Hermitage Capital William Browder -- are accused of tax evasion worth 522 million rubles ($17.1 million)
Browder -- who is currently based in London -- is being tried in absentia.
Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer of Magnitsky's family, told AFP that he has "no plans to participate in an unconstitutional affair".
Despite a request by Magnitsky's relatives not to launch the fraud probe that has been closed after his death, it was reopened at the request of the prosecutors, said Gorokhov, adding that this violates a decision by Russia's Constitutional Court.
Gorokhov argued that a legal case could only involve a dead man if it was aimed at quashing a previous conviction or rehabilitation.
How the trial will unfold with the continued absence of defence lawyers is not clear. But Gorokhov did not exclude that the court will simply appoint a public defender for Magnitsky.
Gorokhov's client, Magnitsky's mother Natalia, has tried to push officials to investigate her son's death, and in October filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights seeking an independent probe.
The Tverskoy court on Friday is expected to pass a not guilty verdict on Kratov, a former deputy chief of Moscow's Butyrka prison and the only defendant that had been charged with causing Magnitsky's death.
Hermitage chief Browder had spearheaded the campaign to punish those allegedly responsible for Magnitsky's death, with the United States passing this month the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists such individuals.
Browder denounced the fraud trial, calling it "an act of reprisal against those who exposed the criminal group of corrupt officials", Hermitage Capital quoted him as saying in a statement.
The Russian parliament on Wednesday retaliated against the Magnitsky Act, passing a law banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans.
The law has been sent to President Vladimir Putin, who said he is planning to sign it.