On May 4th, 1415, an ecumenical council decreed that English theologian John Wycliffe was guilty of heresy for writings and teachings that challenged the secular authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Wycliffe’s punishment, in keeping with the standards of the day, was to be burned at the stake. The catch was that Wycliffe had already been dead for more than thirty years, an inconvenient fact that did not deter Church officials from imposing their gruesome sentence: Wycliffe’s corpse was exhumed from his grave and publicly burned. His ashes were then cast away into a river in an effort to expunge his presence, literally and figuratively, from the country forever. Conducting public trials of dead people accused of heresy later became commonplace during the Spanish Inquisition, particularly against conversos (Jews who nominally converted to Christianity but who allegedly continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret), many of whom had large estates that reverted to the Spanish crown upon their conviction.
The practice of putting dead people on trial for alleged offenses against the established order had thankfully disappeared from Europe in more modern times – until now. Earlier this summer, following a trial that Amnesty International called “deeply sinister” and “the height of absurdity,” a court in Russia convicted former accountant and auditor Sergei Magnisky of facilitating tax evasion. Magnitsky had died from extreme personal and medical mistreatment in a Russian prison more than three years earlier. At the time of his death, he had been held in pre-trial detention for almost a year, following his arrest for accusing Russian officials of stealing more than $230 million from the state treasury. The tax evasion charges against Magnitsky and his co-defendant William Browder (an English businessman who was CEO of the investment fund for which Magnitsky worked at the time of his arrest and who was convicted in absentia along with Magnitsky) were widely seen as retaliation for daring to expose massive state corruption that has come to characterize the Russia of Vladimir Putin. Not satisfied with its “farcical” convictions (Amnesty International’s language again), Russia recently filed a request with the British government to extradite Browder so that he could serve the nine-year prison sentence imposed on him by the Russian court. The British government quickly denied this request. Earlier, Interpol refused to enforce a Russian warrant for Browder’s arrest.
The posthumous trials of alleged heretics by Catholic officials in medieval times and the trial of Magnitsky had much in common. In particular, they were aimed at conveying politically charged messages to a larger audience and achieving related political objectives. One of these objectives, of course, was to discredit the defendant, to undermine his legacy, to taint him and what he stood for as illegitimate. That was clearly the intent of Church officials in prosecuting the long-dead John Wycliffe, whose good name and defiance of Church authority, if left unchallenged, might lead others to question Church doctrines and practices. Similarly, if the public could be convinced that Magnitsky actually did commit tax fraud, his claims about massive official corruption in Russia would be less credible and the public perception that he died as a martyr might be seriously damaged.
A related objective of such trials is to convey a threat to anyone who might consider following the defendant’s example – a threat intended to intimidate others into looking the other way or knowing their place. This threat is premised on the inherent message these trials send about the ruthless nature of the prosecuting authorities – that they are willing to go to any lengths to destroy their enemies. After Magnitsky’s gross mistreatment by Russian authorities during his life and after his death, no one in Russia pondering a serious challenge to state corruption should have any illusions about the likely outcome.
Perhaps the most important message of Sergei Magnitsky’s trial, however, is one that the Russian authorities did not intend to send: that Russia today is more of a gangster state than a responsible government and that the rule of law there is a pretense. This is a message that Putin’s recent foray into chemical weapons diplomacy will not erase.