MOSCOW — Russia took the unusual step of attempting to put a dead man on trial Monday, when it initiated posthumous proceedings against Sergei Magnitsky, the whistle-blowing lawyer who died three years ago in a Moscow jail cell.
The effort to prosecute — postponed when Magnitsky’s legal team refused to participate — stoked tensions in a case that has damaged Russia’s image abroad and strained relations with the United States.
A judge delayed the trial until Feb. 18 so the Moscow bar association could appoint public defenders for the dead man and an absent codefendant.
Magnitsky was 37 when he died, having been held for nearly a year. Authorities said he was detained on tax-evasion charges and died of a heart attack. His advocates say he was jailed for investigating hundreds of millions of dollars possibly taken by the authorities in a tax case, and that he was beaten and denied medical care.
Last month, US Congress passed a law barring anyone linked to Magnitsky’s imprisonment or the initial fraud from entering the United States. In retaliation, Russia’s Parliament prohibited Americans from adopting Russian orphans.
The empty-chair prosecution drew an immediate rebuke. Critics said it was an attempt to intimidate Magnitsky’s family and a clear indication of rising prosecutorial overzealousness under President Vladimir Putin.
In the past year amid political protests, critics note, Russian courts have tried members of a punk band, Pussy Riot, sending two of its members to prison for an anti-Putin performance; dozens of street protesters; and Madonna, for a performance officials said violated a local law against propagandizing homosexual behavior.
Monday it was unclear who or what, exactly, went on trial. Magnitsky’s co-defendant, William F. Browder, has been barred from entering Russia since 2005, so he did not appear in court.
Judge Igor B. Alisov promptly postponed the trial because the defendants did not appear in the courtroom — as expected — but neither did lawyers representing their interests.
Posthumous criminal cases are rare in international practice, most often allowed only when relatives want to clear the name of a suspect, and rarely at the behest of the police, criminal law experts say. If a suspect dies, the question of guilt or innocence is usually moot.
The hearing took place in a closed courtroom. Browder and relatives of Magnitsky said they will boycott the proceedings.
Russian police reopened the criminal investigation against Magnitsky last year, saying it would provide a chance for relatives and supporters to clear his name. Browder says the case is intended to intimidate Magnitsky’s family and discourage them from pressing for prosecutions in his death.