In death, jailed Russian lawyer Magnitsky sparks debate on civil society

By Philip P. Pan
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In the weeks before his death in a Moscow prison, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky drafted a series of handwritten letters and petitions describing his transfer through a succession of crowded jail cells, some reeking of sewage, others cold and damp, each more awful than the last.

He reported being denied medical care despite abdominal pains so intense that he couldn't lie down and a prison doctor telling him he needed surgery. He accused police of offering to free him if he incriminated a client. "When I repeatedly rejected these proposals," he wrote, "the conditions of my detention became worse and worse."

Magnitsky's complaints, made public by his attorneys as he composed them, went unanswered while he lived. But in a nation where millions perished in the Soviet gulag, the words of the 37-year-old tax lawyer struck a nerve after he died last month. Over the past two weeks, his descriptions of the squalid conditions he endured have been splashed on the front pages of newspapers and discussed on radio and television across the country, part of an outcry even his supporters never expected.

"We were surprised to find that civil society still exists in Russia," said a colleague, Vadim Kleiner.

Human rights activists and journalists took up Magnitsky's cause, and President Dmitry Medvedev ordered an investigation. One prison official has already acknowledged "visible violations" in how Magnitsky had been treated, while the powerful Interior Ministry felt compelled to call a news conference to defend its handling of the case.

Magnitsky had been in prison nearly a year when he died Nov. 16, awaiting trial on tax-evasion charges related to his work for the Hermitage Capital Management, once the largest investor in the Russian stock market. He said the charges were trumped up in retaliation for what he called his real offense -- helping Hermitage uncover evidence implicating Interior Ministry officials in the theft of more than $230 million from the government.

Magnitsky's detention received little attention in Russia before his death. Hermitage sent appeals to Medvedev and more than a dozen cabinet ministers; none replied. Russian reporters ignored the massive theft, too, even after police confirmed it had occurred and tried to pin the blame on a lone, unlikely suspect: an ex-con employed at a sawmill.

Yevgenia Albats, a prominent opposition journalist and an editor for the New Times magazine, said she and others were slow to tackle the story in part because of doubts about Hermitage and its U.S.-born chief executive, William Browder. He led investor campaigns against corruption in state firms, she said, but also alienated people by applauding then-President Vladimir Putin's decision to arrest oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on charges that critics said were politically motivated.

Since Magnitsky's death, though, the press, even Kremlin-controlled outlets, has shown unexpected vigor. The New Times published 43 pages of prison writings on its Web site. "It was just stunning for us to read this documented humiliation of personal dignity and human rights," Albats said. "We had this in Stalin's time, but never since then have we had such a detailed account that suggests the practices of the gulag continue to exist now."

Writing on Oct. 13, Magnitsky described what was happening to him as "an act of repression."

But if his death -- officially of heart failure, unofficially of a pancreatic illness that doctors diagnosed but failed to treat -- has prompted a public discussion of prison conditions, the Kremlin has been less willing to confront Magnitsky's allegations of corruption.

Browder said he feared that the authorities were preparing to scapegoat prison officials while letting those who ordered Magnitsky's arrest -- and looted the treasury -- go unpunished. "It's what Sergei was complaining about, the theft that he exposed, that led to his death," he said.

Hermitage officials and the New Times said they have uncovered strong evidence that the architects of the theft are inside the economic security division of the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB. The willingness of the entire Russian political elite to look the other way -- not one politician has made an issue of the missing millions -- underscores the unchecked power of the agency under Putin, himself a former FSB chief.

Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor, has pledged to implement legal reforms and root out corruption but shown no interest in taking on the FSB. "Putin sees his role as the protector of the security apparatus, and it's clear Medvedev won't do anything related to the security forces without his approval," said Mark Galeotti, a Russia specialist at New York University.

In another sign of Medvedev's ineffectiveness, two judges on the nation's high court were forced to resign from senior posts this week after speaking out against corruption in the judiciary. "The security services can do whatever they like, and the courts are limited to ratifying their decisions," one was quoted as saying.

But Kirill Kabanov, who heads the Anti-Corruption Committee, an independent research and advocacy group, said public outrage over Magnitsky's death represents a potential turning point and a chance for Medvedev to make a stand with the public against entrenched bureaucrats.

"We're well aware that the security services will try to hide certain facts, so we can't sit idly by," he said. "It's very important that the president has another assessment of what happened, from civil society, from human rights activists, from journalists. Then it will be up to him to decide which side he takes."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company