Two extraordinary convictions this month show that the rule of law in Russia only exists on the sufferance of President Vladimir Putin. One of the two people found guilty was not only innocent but already dead. The other was almost certainly innocent and a prospective presidential candidate, a protester against the Putin regime who once said, mysteriously, that he wished Russia to become “a big, irrational, metaphysical Canada.”
The norms of law around the world permit a finding of innocence in favour of an accused person who has died, but it is outrageous to convict someone who cannot defend himself because he is dead. Sergei Magnitsky’s exposure of certain corrupt Russians resulted in retaliation. He was imprisoned, and he died in jail in 2009. The United States Congress upped the ante by excluding some of the Russians involved from entering the U.S.
In 2011, Dmitri Medvedev, president of Russia at the time, expressed his belief in Mr. Magnitsky’s integrity, after a human-rights council cleared him, but he has since equivocated. Mr. Magnitsky has been almost literally pursued into his grave.
As for Alexei Navalny, he rose to international prominence in the protests against Mr. Putin’s re-election as president, in which the votes in his favour were evidently overstated. Mr. Navalny is a campaigner against corruption, an engaging character, an effective, lively blogger – but not a Westernizing liberal. For example, he takes a dim view of immigration. He is a nationalist of a kind not easy to grasp outside Russia, someone who could belong inside a Dostoyevsky novel.
That is probably all the more reason that Mr. Putin may fear him as a rival, unlike consistently liberal dissidents. This year, Mr. Navalny has been running to become mayor of the city of Kirov. The charges of embezzlement against him were not supported even by the prosecution witnesses against him, but the judge convicted him, with a five-year jail sentence, and the added result that he cannot seek public office – either as mayor or president.
Irrationality may have some charm for some semi-mystical Russians. Blatant bias in the courts, however, has no merits. The late Mr. Magnitsky should be exonerated, and so should the living Mr. Navalny.