MOSCOW (AP) — The tax-evasion conviction of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky more than three years after his death in a Russian prison was the first under a 2011 Russian law allowing posthumous trials, but not the first time the dead have been put on trial.
The Russian law allows such trials under the principle that a dead defendant’s relatives should have the opportunity to seek to clear the departed’s name — an echo of the Soviet practice of “rehabilitating” those executed for political crimes or who died in labor camps.
Cases in other countries have had different pretexts. Here’s a look at other posthumous trials and actions. POPE FORMOSUS This was a grisly case in which the accused pope’s corpse was put on the stand in the so-called Cadaver Synod of 897.
The Catholic cleric had long been involved in internecine church disputes and jockeying for power. One of his predecessors, John VII, accused him of conspiring with others to take the papacy and of trying to become bishop of Bulgaria even though he already held another bishopric. Formosus eventually was elected pope in 891 and served until his death in 896, but the previous quarrels had festered. His successor revived the charges and ordered that Formosus’ corpse be exhumed and brought to the papal court for judgment.
Formosus was found guilty of perjury and violating canon law; some accounts say three fingers of his right hand, which were used in consecration, were cut off. Two subsequent popes annulled the Cadaver Synod, but Pope Sergius III reaffirmed the conviction.
JOAN OF ARC The teenage French peasant girl who claimed divine guidance and led the French army to victories in the Hundred Years War was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. But a quarter-century later, Pope Callixtus III ordered a new trial after requests by Joan’s mother and a French official. The proceedings described her as a martyr and said she was falsely convicted. She was canonized as a saint in 1920.
OLIVER CROMWELL As a towering figure in 17th-century England, Cromwell attracted wide enmity — signing the death warrant for King Charles I, taking harsh measures against Catholics and demonstrating brutal military brilliance. The resentment was such that although he never faced trial dead or alive, he did suffer a posthumous “execution.” In 1661, after royalists returned to power, Cromwell’s corpse was exhumed and decapitated, and his head was displayed on a pole for years.
MARTIN BORMANN Bormann, the personal secretary to Adolf Hitler, was tried in absentia at the Nuremberg tribunal and sentenced to death — which in the end proved to be superfluous. At the time of the 1946 trial, the whereabouts of the powerful Nazi official were unknown — and for decades after the war he was considered one of the most-wanted Nazi war criminals.
In 1972, during construction work in downtown Berlin, bones were unearthed that were identified as having belonged to Bormann through dental records. The location fit with an account that Bormann had committed suicide to avoid falling into enemy hands as he attempted to flee Berlin in the final days of the war in May 1945.
But rumors persisted that Bormann had found his way to South America until DNA tests done in 1998 conclusively proved that the remains in Berlin were those of Bormann.