Russian prosecutors said Monday the man on trial for causing the death of a whistle-blowing attorney should be freed without charge, in a surprising development in a case that has triggered a major row between Moscow and Washington.
Dmitry Kratov is the only official remaining as a defendant in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died of untreated illnesses in 2009 while in pre-trial detention at a Moscow jail.
Magnitsky had claimed to have uncovered a $235-million state embezzlement scheme before being arrested by the very officials he implicated in the crime.
His case caused international outrage and led to the passage of a US law that blacklists Russian officials allegedly involved in the death.
Moscow retaliated by introducing legislation banning the adoption of Russian children by American citizens, in the biggest diplomatic scandal in years between the two sides.
In Monday's development, prosecutor Dmitry Bokov said that Kratov, deputy head of the prison where Magnitsky was held, should be acquitted of a charge of negligence, because he acted according to the rules and did not receive any complaints from the lawyer.
"There is no cause-effect relationship between Kratov's actions and Magnitsky's death," news agencies quoted Bokov as saying in court.
Kratov and prison doctor Larisa Litvinova had been the only two people charged in August 2011 in connection with Magnitsky's death, despite allegations that more senior officials were involved.
Charges against Litvinova, the doctor who treated Magnitsky and was accused of causing his death by negligence, were dropped in April after the expiry of the statute of limitations.
Magnitsky's employer Hermitage Capital and rights activists charge that his death was a premeditated murder carried out by interior ministry officials.
Lawyer Nikolai Gorokhov, who represents Magnitsky's family, said Kratov's trial could have provided more information about how Magnitsky died.
But Gorokhov accused the presiding judge of sabotaging the hearing by refusing to call important witnesses or to let Magnitsky's mother Natalia ask difficult questions.
"Nobody really investigated how he died," Gorokhov told AFP. "This was a manipulated, fabricated case," he said. The judge even sent court summons to nonexistent addresses to prevent key witnesses from appearing in court, he said.
Hermitage Capital said in a statement Monday that the trial had been controlled from above in order to "cover up the reprisal against Magnitsky," calling prosecutor Bokov President Vladimir Putin's puppet".
Investigators had said in July that Kratov failed to adequately perform his duties as deputy head of the Butyrka prison, where Magnitsky was held in squalid conditions for months despite acute pancreatitis.
Magnitsky was later moved to a different prison with better medical facilities, but he died shortly after his arrival.
Putin on Thursday dismissed the suggestion that Magnitsky may have been killed.
"I do not know the details, but I do know that Magnitsky died not because of torture -- nobody tortured him -- but of a heart attack," Putin told a traditional end-of-year press conference.
Putin may sign before the end of the year the bill banning adoption of Russian children by US citizens, put together by Russia as retaliation against the Magnitsky Act, a law blacklisting officials deemed to be implicated in his death.
Amid the escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov expressed certainty that "common sense will prevail" in the Magnitsky row.
"We have not been -- and are not today -- proponents of blacklists being drawn up against an individual group of people," he said Monday.
Prior to his arrest, Magnitsky was investigating a fraud scheme which he said was used by interior ministry officials to reclaim about $235 million in taxes paid by Hermitage Capital, once Russia's largest foreign investor.
However instead of investigating his claims, investigators launched a fraud probe against him and put him in pre-trial detention.
A report by the Kremlin human rights council last year said Magnitsky was handcuffed at the Matrosskaya Tishina prison to which he was moved and died after being left unattended in excruciating pain.
Magnitsky was 37.