Russia court acquits official over Magnitsky death

A Moscow court on Friday acquitted the only Russian prison official put on trial for negligence over the death in detention of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009, a tragedy that sparked a diplomatic scandal with the United States.

Magnitsky died in horrible pain at only 37 as he was under arrest over a fraud probe. He was jailed after testifying against interior ministry officers and accusing them of embezzling $235 million paid as taxes by his client.

Judge Tatiana Neverova of the Tverskoy district court delivered an innocent verdict for Dmitry Kratov, the former deputy head of the Butyrka jail. He had done everything in his power to help Magnitsky, she said.

The decision had been widely expected after prosecutors earlier this week unexpectedly said Kratov should be acquitted as there was no "cause-effect" relationship between his actions and the death.

Kratov was the only official remaining as a defendant over the death of Magnitsky, which his supporters say was instigated by top officials after the lawyer discovered the tax scam.

With his lawyer absent from the hearing, Kratov, a pale balding man, stood alone to hear the hour-long reading of the verdict. He had not been held under arrest and is still working at the jail, but as a regular doctor.

The judge read through a litany of testimonies and conclusions of medical experts. She ruled that Magnitsky's death was caused by sudden heart failure, rather than the diseases for which he had been treated under Kratov's supervision, namely pancreatitis and gallbladder inflammation.

"I'd like to thank the court for this fair decision," Kratov told Interfax after the verdict, adding that he planned to continue working in the prison system.

Magnitsky's mother and widow, and their lawyer were not at the court hearing after announcing a boycott in protest at the decision by the prosecutors to call for the acquittal of Kratov.

"Participation in this court hearing would have been humiliating for me," Natalia Magnitskaya said in a statement published by her son's former employer Hermitage Capital.

"I understand that everything has been decided in advance and everything has been pre-determined."

Hermitage Capital also called the acquittal a "total miscarriage of justice" and said President Vladimir Putin was protecting the individuals guilty of Magnitsky's death.

Earlier this year, prosecutors dropped the case against Larisa Litvinova, a doctor who was charged by Kratov to care for Magnitsky, due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.

report last year by the Kremlin human rights council said Kratov had denied medical care to the victim as he was under apparent pressure from investigators.

Magnitsky's defence further said that Kratov's trial had ignored requests by Magnitsky's mother to question certain witnesses, and pose difficult questions to those on the stand, accusing the judge of sabotaging attempts to find out how Magnitsky died.

Kratov's fate appeared to be sealed after President Vladimir Putin said last week at his annual press-conference that Magnitsky was not tortured but died of a heart condition.

Prosecutors then asked the judge to exonerate Kratov.

Acquittals are extremely rare in Russian courts. Less than one percent of defendants are found not guilty.

On Thursday, the Tverskoy court also opened the trial against Magnitsky, in an extremely rare instance of hearing a case against a dead man. The court will examine the fraud charges against the lawyer which were used to jail him and ultimately caused his death.

Magnitsky's plight caused international outrage and led to the passage of a US law that blacklists Russian officials allegedly involved in the death, lobbied largely by the lawyer's former client William Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital.

Moscow retaliated by introducing legislation banning the adoption of Russian children by American citizens, in the biggest diplomatic scandal in years between the two sides.

Putin on Friday signed the bill despite protests not just from activists but even some cabinet ministers. It will become law on January 1 2013.

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