In a kleptocratic state, behaving like a law-abiding citizen is a heroic act. In Magnitsky’s case, the criminals he uncovered and the authorities to which he reported them were synonymous. In November 2008, he was arrested by the very same police officials he had accused of orchestrating the tax fraud. For nearly a year, he was kept in torturous conditions in one of Moscow’s most notorious detention centers, under constant pressure to withdraw his testimony. One after another, judges rubber-stamped extensions of his arrest, ignoring his pleas, his lawyers’ petitions, and reports of his deteriorating health.
The last such extension was granted on Nov. 12, 2009 by Judge Yelena Stashina of the Tverskoy District Court. Four days later, on Nov. 16 — 10 years ago this week — Sergei Magnitsky died in Matrosskaya Tishina prison. Moscow’s Public Supervisory Commission, an official body mandated with monitoring prison conditions, concluded that Magnitsky had been handcuffed and beaten to death with rubber truncheons, a claim found credible by the European Court of Human Rights in its recent decision on Magnitsky’s case.
Tragic accidents can occur anywhere, but what happened to Magnitsky was anything but an accident. Immediately, the system closed ranks and made sure to not only protect but reward those responsible. Police officers and investigators involved in Magnitsky’s case received awards and promotions. The only (minor) prison official initially indicted for negligence was cleared of all charges. The perpetrators of the $230 million tax fraud remained in their posts. (Some of the money would later be traced to a Panama shell company owned by Sergei Roldugin, a close friend and confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin.)
Indeed, the only person ever convicted in the case was Sergei Magnitsky himself. In unprecedented posthumous proceedings — the first trial of a dead man in the history of Russia — he was found guilty of the very crime he had uncovered and tried to report: tax fraud. Valery Borschev, former chairman of the Moscow Supervisory Commission, referred to the proceedings as “an abomination that offends every normal human feeling.” He described the verdict as “an affront to international public opinion.”
It was international public opinion that stepped forward to compensate for the lack of justice at home. In 2012, the U.S. Congress made history by passing a law — named for Magnitsky — that imposed targeted sanctions on Russian officials complicit in human rights abuse by revoking their visas, freezing their assets, and blacklisting them from the American banking system.
Then-Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov — who played a key role in convincing Congress to support this law despite resistance from the Obama administration, which was bent on a “reset” with Putin — called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign parliament,” because it targeted those who abused the rights of Russian citizens and plundered the resources of Russian taxpayers. (In 2019, the United States would use the Magnitsky Act to sanction one of the organizers of Nemtsov’s assassination, an officer in the Russian Interior Ministry and close aide to Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.) Five other countries have followed the United States in passing their own Magnitsky laws; more are considering similar measures.
The principle behind this law was as revolutionary when it first passed as it sounds obvious now: level sanctions at those who deserve them. Where previous legal regimes targeted whole countries for the wrongs of their unelected rulers, the Magnitsky Act brought personal accountability.
Perhaps nowhere is this more relevant than in Putin’s Russia, whose officials and oligarchs have grown accustomed to enjoying the privileges of democracy in the West (where they keep their money, buy their homes, and park their families) while denying basic democratic rights to their own people. There is a long way yet to fully end this hypocrisy — and still no shortage of Western enablers willing to look the other way. But the Magnitsky Act has set a standard that is here to stay.
Magnitsky sanctions are a poor substitute for justice. Those complicit in torture, murder, wrongful imprisonment, and other gross violations of human rights should face something more than a visa ban or an asset freeze. But where impunity reigned before, there is now a way to bring abusers to account, a universal and permanent mechanism of personal accountability for those who violate the norms of civilized society. And this is the best possible tribute to the memory of Sergei Magnitsky — a man who did not want to be a hero or seek public spotlight, but merely chose to live honestly and follow the law.