Seeking guilty in Russia’s Magnitsky case


Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had been held in pre-trial detention in a complex fraud case for 11 months, died at the age of 37 in police custody because of his work as a tax adviser to Browder’s Hermitage Capital Management when it operated in Russia. (-/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
November 27, 2011

If the legal system here worked, a 75-page report titled “The Torture and Murder of Sergei Magnitsky and the Coverup by the Russian Government” would be submitted to a court of law. Instead, it is being delivered Monday to the court of international opinion.

The report, full of links to official documents and the result of a thousand man-hours of work, comes not from officers of the law but an American-born businessman who is convinced that Russian officials are getting away with murder.

William F. Browder, who runs an investment firm based in London, has taken on the role of virtual prosecutor in the death of Sergei L. Magnitsky, who died at the age of 37 in police custody because of his work as a tax adviser to Browder’s Hermitage Capital Management when it operated in Russia.

In October 2008, Magnitsky testified to Russian authorities that a collection of police, judges and tax officials had conspired to steal $230 million, using Hermitage company documents to get a fraudulent tax return.

That testimony put him on the road that led to his death on Nov. 16, 2009, in a notorious Moscow pretrial detention center. Ever since, Browder has been trying to bring about an investigation that would result in punishment of those responsible.

So far, Russia has punished no one. The trial of two low-level doctors is expected soon, but human rights activists say higher-level officials should be investigated. So Browder has produced his own inquiry.

“The purpose is to prove to Western governments definitively that there is no real investigation going on,” he said by telephone from London. He is hoping the West will pressure Russia to act.

Although many of the circumstances are known, Browder has assembled the information in a step-by-step recounting backed up by numerous documents, beginning with a picture of Magnitsky in his casket and moving steadily through the entire case, with names, dates and faces cited on every page.

First, police assigned the very officers Magnitsky testified against to investigate him. Those officers arrested him in November 2008, charged him with the tax fraud and held him under ever more brutal conditions, telling him he should sign a confession. In June 2009, he became seriously ill with pancreatitis and excruciating pain. Doctors ordered surgery, but his keepers prevented it.

In the last hour of his life, he was reportedly beaten with rubber batons. Doctors found him dead on a cell floor.

The report says some officials connected to the case show signs of great wealth despite their small salaries.

“He was murdered,” said Valery Borshchev, head of an independent prison monitoring commission and a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, which conducted its own investigation of Magnitsky’s death.

On Thursday, council members met with police officials, trying once again to persuade them to act on information produced in the council’s investigation and initiate prosecutions.

“There were about 20 law enforcement officers,” said Irina Yasina, a journalist and member of the human rights council. “I’ve never seen so many in my entire life.”

Borshchev was encouraged by the meeting because he found Alexander Bastrykin, chief of the main federal investigative authority, neutral when the lead investigator hotly refuted Borshchev’s remarks about the need for a probe and prosecution.

Yasina said she hoped the Browder report would give the council still more ammunition (though Russian officials refer to him contemptuously, she said).

“We knew about the documents,” she said, “but now we will have them. It is very convincing.”

Both Yasina and Borshchev are determined to keep fighting for an official investigation, though they are under no illusions about the battle.

“I believe the questions of who should be brought to liability or who should not be brought to liability are solved at the very top,” Borshchev said.

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