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MOSCOW (AP) — The only official charged with the death of a Russian whistleblowing lawyer walked free on Friday after a Moscow court acquitted him of negligence, in a case that has become a rallying point for human rights advocates and sparked escalating legislation in the U.S. and Russia.
Sergei Magnitsky died in jail in 2009 after his pancreatitis went untreated, and an investigation by Russia's presidential council on human rights concluded he was severely beaten and denied medical treatment. Prison doctor Dmitry Kratov was the only person to face trial in the case.
Judge Tatyana Neverova said she found no evidence that Kratov's negligence could have caused the lawyer's death. The acquittal was widely expected after prosecutors earlier this week dropped their accusations, saying they had decided there was no connection between Kratov's actions and Magnitsky's death.
The case has angered both Russian activists and the West. The U.S. Congress passed legislation this month in Magnitsky's name, calling for sanctions against officials — including Kratov — deemed to be connected with human rights abuses. The bill provoked retaliation from Moscow, including a measure barring Americans from adopting Russian children that President Vladimir Putin signed on Friday.
Magnitsky, a lawyer for the Hermitage Capital fund, was arrested in 2008 on suspicion of tax evasion by the same Interior Ministry officials he accused of using false tax documents to steal $230 million from the state. He died while in custody awaiting trial.
Government officials have dismissed calls to investigate police officials and the only official charged in his death was Kratov, who was deputy chief physician at the Butyrskaya prison where Magnitsky was held.
Hermitage's owner, Bill Browder, said the outcome of the trial shows the government's unwillingness to find and try the culprits.
"Even though Kratov was only a minor player in the overall persecution of Sergei, the fact that the Russian authorities can't even scapegoat their one scapegoat says everything about this case," Browder said.
Kratov pleaded not guilty to charges of negligence leading to death, saying he was unable to ensure medical care for Magnitsky because of a shortage of staff.
The prison doctor thanked "everyone who believed in me and my innocence" after the verdict.
The lawyer's family has described the trial as a sham, maintaining that Kratov played a minor role in the man's death and that officials responsible must face justice.
The lawyer's mother and attorney did not attend the ruling in protest.
"Participation in this court hearing would have been humiliating for me," Nataliya Magnitskaya said in a statement. "I understand that everything has been decided in advance and everything has been pre-determined."
Browder said that he does not doubt that "people responsible for Magnitsky's death are being protected by the president of Russia.
"In this case, there was overwhelming evidence of Kratov's involvement and his acquittal goes against any logic or concept of justice," he said
Valery Borshchev, a human rights advocate who spearheaded the presidential commission's investigation into Magnitsky's death, was outraged with the court's decision. Borshchev insisted that authorities must investigate overwhelming evidence collected by his commission that points to the fact that Magnitsky was tortured.
"Kratov and others are guilty because there were inadequate conditions to treat Magnitsky," he told the Interfax news agency. "The conditions in jail were torturous, and doctors didn't do anything to change that."