MOSCOW — The steel cage reserved for the defendants was empty Thursday, which was not surprising since one of them is dead and the other lives in London. As the judge read out his verdict, one of the defense lawyers paid no attention, tapping on his tablet computer instead.
If the posthumous prosecution of Sergei L. Magnitsky, the lawyer who was jailed as he tried to expose a government tax fraud and died four years ago in a Russian prison, seemed surreal from the moment the authorities announced it, the verdict and sentencing Thursday did not disappoint.
By all accounts, it was Russia’s first trial of a dead man. In Tverskoi District Court, it took the judge, Igor B. Alisov, more than 90 minutes to read his decision pronouncing Magnitsky guilty of tax evasion.
Magnitsky was convicted along with a former client, William F. Browder, a financier who lives in Britain and was tried in absentia. Browder, once Russia’s largest foreign portfolio investor, was sentenced to nine years in prison. Interpol in late May refused a request by the Russian government to track Browder’s whereabouts, a relatively rare instance of a law enforcement inquiry’s being set aside as politically motivated.
Browder, who has been barred from Russia since 2005, said from London that he believed that the Kremlin was acting out of desperation.
“The Russian state is a criminal state. And in order to operate in Russia, you have two options as a businessman: You can become part of the criminality, in which case you become a criminal, or you can oppose it, in which case you become a victim, and there’s no way you can avoid it,” Browder said.
Despite the long recitation of facts and history, the result was rather simple: Magnitsky and Browder had been found guilty of large-scale tax evasion stemming from a scheme in which they fraudulently claimed benefits available to companies that employed workers with disabilities.
Magnitsky was imprisoned after accusing Russian officials of embezzling $230 million from the treasury. He died in pretrial detention nearly a year after his arrest. While in custody he had received diagnoses of pancreatitis and gallbladder disease and wrote repeated requests for medical treatment, which were refused.
Authorities ruled that he had died of toxic shock and heart failure. One prison official was brought to trial in Magnitsky’s death, but in a late twist prosecutors switched their view and urged an acquittal.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin on the verdict.
After announcing the guilty verdicts, Alisov said the case against Magnitsky had been dismissed because of his death, presumably to explain why he was not issuing a sentence.
At one point, a Moscow court ruled that the criminal case against Magnitsky was legal, even though he was dead, because his mother had insisted that her son was innocent in interviews with the news media.