Russia appoints lawyer to represent Magnitsky ahead of posthumous trial

The Russian government has appointed a lawyer to represent Sergei Magnitsky in a trial now set to take place on 4 March.

The court date was announced during a preliminary hearing earlier today at Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court. The hearing date was originally scheduled for 28 January but was postponed after Magnitsky’s family and their lawyers refused to take part in the trial (29 January 2013).

It was confirmed today that the state has now appointed Nikolai Gerasimov to represent dead lawyer Magnitsky and Kirill Goncharov to represent Bill Browder, the founder of UK-based investment fund Hermitage Capital, throughout the trial.

Both lawyers are members of the Moscow Bar Association and their appointments come in spite of a formal appeal by Natalya Magnitskaya, Magnitsky’s mother, to Bar Association chairman Henri Reznik to urge all of its members to not participate as ‘state-appointed counsel’ in the trial (29 January 2013).

According to a statement by the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office in November 2012, both Magnitsky and Browder stand accused of evading an estimated 522 million roubles in taxes. The decision to try Magnitsky posthumously first emerged in August 2011, when a Russian constitutional court ruled that the death of a defendant should not automatically render an investigation closed.

Magnitsky was initially detained in November 2008 on suspicion of assisting his client Hermitage Capital Management evade around $17.4m (£11.08m) in taxes. Although the original allegations were lodged against Hermitage, throughout the course of the investigation Magnitsky came upon what he believed to be a cover-up for Russian state officials to embezzle an estimated $230m from the Russian Treasury (6 August 2012).

Lawyers for Magnitsky’s family and for Browder vehemently deny the accusations. Following the decision by Browder, Magnitsky’s family and their lawyers not to participate in the trial, Judge Igor Alisov and the Russian authorities resolved last month to appoint lawyers to represent both defendants in order for the trial to go ahead.

Commenting on the situation, Reznik told Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta: “Lawyers cannot refuse to go to court when they’re summoned. They have no choice but to go. By participating they’re not acting unlawfully, but professionally.”

It is understood that failure by any member of the Moscow Bar Association to take part in proceedings for which they are summoned can result in immediate disbarment.

The court date has now been set for 4 March to give both lawyers time to prepare for the trial.

The Lawyer understands that the preliminary hearing today centred on details and logistics of the upcoming trial, with an extra layer of complexity being added because the defendants will not be present. Magnitsky, who died in pre-trial detention in 2009, is being tried posthumously while Browder is refusing to take part in the proceedings and is due to be examined in absentia.

The trial will proceed against a backdrop of mounting international backlash against Russia’s handling of the situation that has seen US President Barack Obama sign into law the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, after the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of passing the bill in November last year (20 November 2012). Russia subsequently announced that it was banning Americans from adopting Russian citizens.