Russia to reopen probe against dead lawyer

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Russian prosecutors moved Tuesday to re-open a criminal probe against a Western investment fund lawyer whose death in pre-trial detention almost two years ago put a new strain on Russia-US ties.

The General Prosecutor's office said an earlier decision to drop the fraud investigation against Sergei Magnitsky was annulled and a request to resume the probe sent to the investigative arm of the Russian interior ministry.

"We have sent a letter to the interior ministry investigative committee," a spokeswoman for the General Prosecutor's office told AFP.

No reasons for the decision were given.

The case has become emblematic of Western concerns about the safety of investing in Russia and the justice system being used by insiders to punish those who try to stand up to official fraud.

The decision to take a new look at Magnitsky's alleged involvement in fraud -- charges dismissed as fiction by US officials -- follows a Constitutional Court ruling allowing cases to be pursued against suspects who are already dead.

The Hermitage Capital fund for which Magnitsky worked received the news with outrage. "This represents a clear abuse of the law and due process", a company spokesman said in a statement.

He added that interior ministry officials had informed the fund they had no intention of investigating officers for potential wrongdoing, even though a Kremlin rights committee had blamed several figures for the death.

The 37-year-old lawyer worked for what was then Moscow's largest Western hedge fund. But its US-born founder Bill Browder had repeated run-ins with the authorities and was eventually denied entry to Russia.

Magnitsky was arrested and jailed shortly after he went public with claims that Russian tax and interior ministry officials had used a complex scheme to claim some $235 million in taxes paid by the fund.

The attorney was charged with the very crimes he claimed to have uncovered and investigated by the same police officials he named in the tax case.

His death in November 2009 was met by initial refusals from investigators to launch criminal inquiries into the circumstances of his treatment or prosecution.

Browder's fund has since led a global campaign to introduce sanctions against Russia for failing to punish officials it believes were responsible for the lawyer's death and illegal arrest.

Washington also outraged Moscow last week by banning visas for an unspecified number of Russian officials linked to Magnitsky's investigation and treatment in jail.

The Russian foreign ministry warned it would take "adequate measures" against the United States and announced the introduction of its own list of unnamed officials who allegedly mistreated Russians.

Tuesday's announcement came as a surprise because Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had previously hinted that he expected probes to be launched against those suspected of involvement in Magnitsky's prosecution and death.

The Kremlin panel which advises Medvedev on human rights delivered an unusually critical report last month suggesting the case was illegal from the start because it was launched by the very officials who were suspected of the fraud.

But Hermitage said it had been informed by the interior ministry that it had decided against following the Kremlin panel's recommendation to investigate its own officers.

"From the information cited, one can find no grounds to conduct any checks into the alleged wrongdoing of members of the investigative and operational team on" the Magnitsky case, said an interior ministry statement released to Hermitage lawyers.

© 2011 AFP

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