One year ago tomorrow, Sergei Magnitsky was, for all intents and purposes, murdered after being held in a Russian jail for 358 days. Last week, Russian authorities figuratively spit on his grave as five officials connected to Magnitsky's case were awarded commendations by the Interior Ministry. The evident absence of any accountability or justice in Russia has lead two members of the U.S. Congress to propose a visa ban and asset freeze against 60 Russian officials involved in the Magnitsky matter. Their efforts should be embraced by President Barack Obama's administration, and European governments should adopt similar measures.
Magnitsky was a 37-year-old lawyer working for the Moscow firm Firestone Duncan where he represented the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management. Hermitage had been Russia's largest foreign investor during the early Putin years -- until, that is, its head, William Browder, ran afoul of certain Russian officials and had his visa revoked in 2005 on "national security" grounds. A British citizen, Browder had been pushing for greater rights for minority shareholders and better corporate governance among Russian companies. It seemed he pushed too far, especially against such prized state assets as Gazprom. In 2007, Russian authorities opened an investigation against him and Hermitage for tax evasion to the tune of $16.2 million.
Magnitsky actively fought the tax-evasion charges against Hermitage in Moscow and uncovered evidence suggesting that Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) officials engaged in the massive theft of $230 million by using information obtained from the tax-evasion case against Hermitage to fraudulently obtain money in tax refunds from the state. He gave formal testimony against the MVD's criminal activities, and he named names, including high-ranking officials. Within a month of his testimony, Magnitsky was arrested on charges of personal tax evasion by the very same officials whom he had accused. Magnitsky denied the charges against him, alleging that his imprisonment was designed to pressure him to retract his testimony and instead implicate Browder and Hermitage.
Despite the nonviolent nature of his alleged crimes, Magnitsky was kept in appalling conditions for nearly a year without bail or permission to see his wife and two children. He soon developed health problems and was diagnosed at Matrosskaya Tishina jail hospital with numerous ailments, including pancreatic and gallbladder disease. He was scheduled to have surgery, but instead was transferred in July 2009 to Moscow's Butyrskaya Prison, which does not have a hospital. Despite numerous requests from Magnitsky for basic medical treatment, prison officials denied him all care. His condition was allowed to deteriorate to the point that, on Nov. 16, 2009, Magnitsky died.
This kind of denial of medical care is a common practice in Russia, according to human rights activists. Yukos lawyer Vasily Aleksanyan, for example, who contracted tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS and went blind while in custody, was released after a harrowing experience. Detention and denial of treatment are used to compel prisoners to cooperate and implicate others. "Preliminary imprisonment of a person who is innocent before being tried generally looks like a sophisticated medieval revenge," wrote the respected business daily Vedomosti newspaper (a joint venture between the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times) two days after Magnitsky died. "But, as we see, it is practiced in Russia even in investigating economic crimes."
Three days after Magnitsky's death, Russian Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov vowed to carry out a "serious probe." In a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev several days later, Ella Pamfilova, then head of the presidential human rights council, described Magnitsky's situation as "a murder and a tragedy." The next day, Medvedev ordered a high-level probe into the matter, and the stand-alone Investigative Committee announced it had opened a criminal case over "negligence and prison officials' failure to provide medical aid." To this day, however, not a single charge has been brought against any officials involved in the case.
On the contrary, a number of those in the MVD connected to the Magnitsky matter were promoted this year, and then last week -- to add insult to injury -- five were given awards for distinguished service. Lt. Col. Oleg Silchenko, a lead investigator in the Magnitsky case, and Maj. Pavel Karpov, implicated for fraud in Magnitsky's testimony, were each named "best investigator"; Col. Natalia Vinogradova, Col. Irina Dudukina, and Maj. Artem Churikanov were also honored. It seems to be more than just coincidence that MVD officials have timed these awards for the one-year anniversary of Magnitsky's death, reflecting their utter contempt for efforts to bring justice and accountability to this case.