In the 1870s, during the American craze for spiritualism, a reformer and Civil War veteran named Henry Olcott dreamed of the day when murder victims could be brought back from the dead to give evidence against their killers. But even he never conceived of putting the dead themselves on trial. After all, their fate was already in the hands of the greatest judge of all.
So Russian President Vladimir Putin must have been a very angry man when he sanctioned the posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky, who died in March 2009, for tax evasion. Yesterday that strange trial concluded with a guilty verdict. No sentence was passed however, which was inconsistent considering the gravity of the crime.
Bill Browder, the British-based businessman who hired Magnitsky to investigate allegations of tax evasion at Browder's company, Hermitage Capital Management, was given a nine-year jail sentence in absentia. If he were so reckless as to fly to Moscow, he would risk being forced to serve it. Such a risk would only attend Magnitsky if he rose from the dead, but clearly that possibility was considered too slight for it to be worth passing sentence on him.
There are precedents for this sort of behaviour. The corpse of Oliver Cromwell was exhumed after the restoration of the British monarchy. The crime against him was the most terrible of all, regicide, but even Charles II's lawyers were not sufficiently ghoulish to put his dead body in the dock. They merely decapitated it and displayed his head on a pole.
The style of "justice" disposed under Putin is becoming more and more baroque, whether it be his regime's suspected role in the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko in London, the unending persecution of the expropriated oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky or the forthcoming trial of the stunningly courageous lawyer and activist Alexei Navalny.
But even among these cases Magnitsky stands out for the naked cruelty of retribution exacted against a man who, in the course of his professional work, had discovered a very inconvenient truth.
What Magnitsky, an investment fund lawyer, unearthed at Browder's fund was that the taxes had been paid, but that Russian officials had stolen US$230 million ($293.5 million), leaving the appearance of evasion.
In a functioning state, this shocking discovery would have forced the Government to open an inquiry, resulting in the officials in question being tried for looting the coffers. In Putin's Russia, what happened was precisely the opposite. The corrupt officials received official protection, while Magnitsky was arrested, himself accused of tax evasion, and locked up in a pre-trial detention centre.
The way he was treated while in custody is the most disturbing aspect of the entire case: he was tortured, beaten and refused treatment for the pancreatitis from which he was suffering. Aged 37, he died in agony after one year of this abuse.
Perhaps his jailers tortured him to get him to confess. Or perhaps not: there is plenty of evidence in recent years of the malleability of Russian judges; they deliver the verdicts that are required of them. Perhaps they merely wanted to show what happens to a Russian, working for an American, who dares to shame his fellow Russians.
Whatever his torturers' motives, their actions clearly met with approval higher up. Putin pooh-poohed all talk of torture and foul play and said that Magnitsky had died of heart failure.
With the Magnitsky Act, promoted by Browder, the United States has barred officials who tortured Magnitsky from travelling to America. But these people are mere pawns. As Browder himself said yesterday, what is needed is for the British Government to hit Putin's mega-rich friends where it hurts, by freezing their assets and stopping them going to Britain. The popularity of London with wealthy Russians means that what happens there is much more significant than decisions taken in Washington. More and more, Putin is coming to resemble one of his appalling predecessors, Stalin or Ivan the Terrible.
If British Foreign Secretary William Hague's boast of an ethical foreign policy is to have any credibility at all, Britain's response to the Magnitsky outrage must be uncompromising.