Russian lawyer who alleged police corruption dies in prison

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Russian lawyer jailed after uncovering evidence of police involvement in the theft of $230 million from the government has died in prison, officials said Tuesday, and his American partner is accusing the authorities of killing him.

Sergei Magnitsky, 37, a specialist in tax law and father of two, died at Moscow's Butyrskaya Prison of apparent heart failure Monday night, said Irina Dudukina, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman.

But Jamison Firestone, the head of Magnitsky's firm and a board member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, said the authorities had denied Magnitsky treatment for serious illnesses and may have killed him to hide the crime he helped expose.

"I think we're dealing with one of two things here. . . . Either way, they killed him," Firestone said. "Whether they meant to do it over the weekend, or whether he died under pressure after they took a series of actions that destroyed his health and refused to treat him, it isn't necessarily relevant."

Magnitsky was arrested nearly a year ago on tax evasion charges related to his work for London-based Hermitage Capital Management, once the largest foreign investor in Russia's stock market. Hermitage says the charges were trumped up to pressure him into incriminating its chief, William Browder, who was expelled from Russia in 2005 while crusading against corruption in state firms.

Hermitage sold its Russian assets but says its attorneys found that criminals working with top police officials then used its holding companies to obtain a fraudulent tax refund of $230 million.

When Hermitage reported the plot last year, police went after the lawyers, several of whom fled the country. The Interior Ministry acknowledged the $230 million theft but prosecuted only a sawmill employee named in the fraudulent corporate documents.

Browder described Magnitsky as "a brave man whom we loved" and demanded a high-level probe. "It's an unspeakable tragedy that a healthy 37-year-old can enter prison and 11 months later die from his mistreatment. It raises grave questions about who's responsible for his death," he said.

The U.S. ambassador had urged Russia to investigate Magnitsky's detention last month, and Britain's foreign secretary also raised the matter, Browder said. Neither Prime Minister Vladimir Putin nor President Dmitry Medvedev have commented on the case.

Firestone said Magnitsky was subjected to increasingly harsh conditions because he refused police demands to give "appropriate testimony."

Prison doctors diagnosed his pancreatic and gallbladder ailments in June and planned surgery, but he was abruptly transferred to Butyrskaya, where he was denied care, according to an account he wrote. He suffered such intense pains that cellmates often shouted for guards to help him, Firestone said.

Dudukina denied that Magnitsky had complained about his health. But his account records 11 written complaints with the prison, and he filed a court motion in September demanding a medical exam. The motion was denied.

A court would have been required to indict Magnitsky or release him next week, but a judge accepted new evidence Thursday without letting his attorneys study the material. Furious, Magnitsky asked to skip future hearings and fire his attorneys, saying their presence only gave credibility to a farce, Firestone said. That motion was denied, too.

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