The death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky: What Russia's 'legal nihilism' means

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Dmitry Medvedev keeps giving speeches about ending the lawlessness and corruption that have overtaken his country. That would be encouraging -- except that Russians who try to act on the president's words keep turning up dead. The latest victim of what Mr. Medvedev calls "legal nihilism" is Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer and father of two who was reported to have died last week in a Moscow prison, after more than a year of detention without charge.

Mr. Magnitsky was working for Hermitage Capital Management, once one of the largest foreign investors in Russia. After its high-profile American-born owner, William F. Browder, was banned from the country four years ago, a criminal group including senior police and security officials took over several of the firm's Russian holding companies and used them to steal $230 million in government funds, according to the company.

After Mr. Magnitsky presented evidence implicating Interior Ministry officials in the theft, he was arrested by those same officials, denied bail and held in increasingly harsh conditions until his death. He was denied visits from his wife and children; his repeated written requests for medical attention in recent weeks were ignored. His lawyers were told that he died of an abdominal rupture and heart failure on the night of Nov. 16. There is, of course, no independent confirmation of this account. As the head of his law firm noted, Mr. Magnitsky's death was, in one way or another, brought about by the Russian authorities whose corruption he sought to expose.

Mr. Browder was once conspicuous in his loud defense of Mr. Medvedev's mentor, Vladimir Putin, even after the persecution and imprisonment of the country's biggest private businessman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once authorities turned on Mr. Browder, revoked his visa and drove his business out of the country, Mr. Putin publicly denied that he had ever heard of the famous investor. From London, Mr. Browder has been doing his best to expose Russian corruption and to warn foreign investors; he even produced a YouTube video about "how companies are stolen, criminals take over banks and murderers dictate to judges." Now he will have to add the death of his own lawyer to that litany.

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