Russia reopens case against dead lawyer

MOSCOW, Russia - Russian investigators re-opened a criminal case Wednesday against a whistleblower who died in pre-trial detention after being arrested by police officials he suspected of massive fraud.

Attorney Sergei Magnitsky accused the authorities of receiving $230 million in back taxes paid by his Western hedge fund client in 2007. He was jailed on fraud charges the next year and died of untreated ailments in November 2009.

The incident's investigation is being treated by Western governments as a test of President Dmitry Medvedev's commitment to reform and has already led the United States to impose a travel ban on officials linked to the case.

"We have resumed the probe (against Magnitsky) on instructions from the Prosecutor General's office," Russian state news agencies quoted a spokeswoman from the interior ministry's investigative department as saying.

Medvedev ordered a comprehensive review of the entire episode after his rights panel concluded that Magnitsky should have never been put in prison by the very officials at the interior ministry's investigative department he suspected of involvement in fraud.

But the foreign ministry has since threatened to impose its own travel ban on US officials while the interior ministry has refused to investigate its staff amid signs of security service resistance to Medvedev's orders.

The Prosecutor General's office followed this trend on Tuesday by asking investigators to relaunch the fraud case based on which Magnitsky was originally jailed.

The lawyer was accused of organising the very tax fraud scheme he claimed to have uncovered.

The Hermitage Investment fund which hired Magnitsky's service at the time of his death said the new police probe was meant to deflect blame and attention away from the Russian officials who actually organised the fraud.

The decision to investigate the dead attorney was surprising in part because Medvedev had previously hinted that he expected probes to be opened against those suspected of involvement in Magnitsky's prosecution and death.

Charges have so far been brought against two low-ranking officials who worked in the jail in which Magnitsky died.