U.N.-appointed human rights experts to probe death of Russian lawyer Magnitsky

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 8:11 PM

MOSCOW - U.N.-appointed human rights experts have agreed to explore the death in pretrial detention of a Moscow lawyer who was arrested after filing accusations of police involvement in a multimillion-dollar embezzlement scheme, a colleague who has vowed to avenge his death said Thursday.

The decision comes at the request of Redress, a British human rights organization that works on behalf of torture victims. The lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was outside counsel to the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, died in a Moscow jail in November 2009 in what have been described as torturous conditions. He had been in jail 358 days.

Since then, Hermitage Capital's founder, William F. Browder, has been pushing for a full-scale investigation into the circumstances of the 37-year-old lawyer's death, accusing police of retaliating against Magnitsky to conceal their guilt. Browder, who is now based in London, said Thursday that he had brought the case to the attention of nongovernmental organizations and that Redress had responded.

"It's very significant," Browder said, adding that Russia will have a difficult time avoiding international attention about the case with the United Nations asking questions.

Redress filed a 100-page document with U.N. special rapporteurs - independent experts on human rights issues - alleging that Magnitsky's "inhuman detention conditions, the isolation from his family, the lack of regular access to his lawyers and the intentional refusal to provide adequate medical assistance resulted in the deliberate infliction of severe pain and suffering, and ultimately his death."

Redress asserted that Magnitsky was held under dire conditions in an effort to pressure him to retract his testimony against Russian officials and place the blame for the $230 million dollar tax fraud elsewhere. The organization called his treatment so severe that it violated the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

"We thought the Magnitsky case demonstrated the general failures apparent in the Russian legal system," Juergen Schurr, Redress's legal adviser, said from London. "The very legal system he believed in failed him. That's the kind of case we deal with in our work."

In addition, Redress said, denying Magnitsky's requests to see his wife, children and mother violated basic U.N. rules for the treatment of prisoners.

In a statement from Geneva, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said that its independent experts had been in touch with Russia over the Magnitsky case.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the U.N. request was only for information.

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