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Deja Vu

February 1, 2013

Dead, Again


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2013: When Sergei Magnitsky died in a Russian detention center in November 2009, it was, by all accounts, the final chapter in the life of the 37-year-old lawyer who had been arrested after he began investigating hundreds of millions of dollars in tax fraud purportedly perpetrated by Russian authorities. This week, though, his story continued when Russia opened posthumous proceedings against him under a cloud of derision from international advocates of justice. The New York Times reports:

As expected, the empty-chair prosecution drew an immediate rebuke. Critics said that it was an attempt to intimidate Mr. Magnitsky’s family members, and that it was a clear indication of rising prosecutorial overzealousness under President Vladimir V. Putin.

The hearing was of a type in Russian practice that indicates that the police consider their work complete, and that the case can go to trial, Aleksandra V. Bereznina, a spokeswoman for Tverskoi Regional Court, said in an interview.

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. When a suspect dies, the question of guilt or innocence is usually rendered moot.

“All questions about investigating and charging of suspects, whoever it may be, alive or maybe not alive or something else, that is up to the police,” Ms. Bereznina said.

897: As the product of the fiercely partisan quality of ninth century papal politics, the Cadaver Synod ranks as one of the most macabre moments in the history of ecclesiastical justice. Having accused his predecessor Formosus of usurping the papal throne, Pope Stephen VII initiated a trial of the deceased Formosus that proved so grisly—even by the standards of the ninth century—that the ensuing public outcry resulted in Stephen's deposition, imprisonment, and eventual strangulation. As Bartolomeo Platina, a papal librarian writing in the fifteenth century, recounts in his Lives of the Popes:

Stephen, the Seventh, a Roman, Bishop of Anagni, being made Pope, persecuted the memory of Formosus with so much spite, that he abrogated his decrees and rescinded all he had done. Hence it was that Stephen exercised his rage even upon his dead body.

In a council which he held, he ordered the body of Formosus to be dragged out of the grave, to be stripped of his pontifical habit and put into that of a laymen, and then to be buried among secular persons, having first cut off those two fingers of his right hand, which are principally used by priests in consecration, and thrown them into the Tiber. This proved a great controversy, and of very ill example; for the succeeding Popes made it almost a constant custom either to break or abrogate the acts of their predecessors, which was certainly far different from the practice of any of those good Popes whose lives we have written.

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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