Vladimir Putin’s official launch of his presidential campaign late last month coincided with the publication of a damning new dossier of evidence relating to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the whistleblower attorney who has become a martyr to anti-corruption efforts in Russia.
The new report includes documents uncovered by a team of attorneys and forensic experts working for Magnitsky’s former colleagues at the hedge fund Hermitage Capital. The findings implicate Russian officials at various levels in the imprisonment and medical neglect that led to Magnitsky’s death. The dossier also includes evidence that the beating Magnitsky sustained with rubber batons hours before his death was officially sanctioned by prison authorities. The latest revelations add excruciating detail to the unfolding tale of the 37-year-old lawyer’s demise two years ago.
Magnitsky was a well-respected attorney in the Moscow-based law firm Firestone Duncan, and a believer in the rule of law. Employed to represent Hermitage Capital, he uncovered an elaborate ruse whereby the official documents of investment companies owned by Hermitage were stolen, fraudulently re-registered, and used to apply for a tax refund of $230 million—the largest in Russian history—which was granted in only one day and paid to the re-registered entities.
Magnitsky accused interior ministry officials Lt. Col. Artem Kuznetsov and Major Pavel Karpov, among others, of orchestrating the theft and lodged criminal complaints based on the evidence he had amassed. The state responded by ordering Kuznetsov—one of the officials accused of orchestrating the fraud—to take charge of the investigation of the tax fraud. Despite warnings from friends and family, Magnitsky refused to recant his testimony and all offers to flee the country, believing that justice would eventually be done.
Instead, Magnitsky was arrested by Kuznetsov, pressured into confessing to the theft of the $230 million from the state, and imprisoned without trial in November 2008. He endured a year of incarceration in unacceptable conditions, developing gall stones, pancreatitis, and acalculous cholecystitis. Despite lodging 20 written petitions for medical attention, Magnitsky was consistently left untreated and his ailments, all of which were easily treatable, developed into acute and excruciatingly painful conditions. Magnitsky was found dead on the floor of an isolated cell in the Matrosskaya Tishina prison on November 16, 2009.
The dossier features the testimony of civilian doctors who claim they arrived at Matrosskaya Tishina at 8 p.m. that evening, but were not permitted to enter his cell for one hour and eighteen minutes, at which point Magnitsky was already dead. The report also includes the release of graphic post-mortem photographs of lacerations and bruises on Magnitsky’s body. According to the recently uncovered internal report reproduced in the new tranche of evidence, the use of rubber batons was sanctioned by Fikhret Tagiev, the head of Matrosskaya Tishina. Only eight days after the death, Tagiev also closed the internal inquiry into the death. Petitions and inquiries into the cause of Magnitsky’s death were ignored and obfuscated across all levels of the Russian government, including in the courts system, the interior ministry, the penitentiary service, and the general prosecutor’s office.
The evidence led the independent Moscow Public Oversight Commission to conclude in December 2009 that Magnitsky died as a result of medical neglect and torturous conditions. In 2011, the Russian president’s Human Rights Council confirmed this finding and further concluded that the prosecution of Magnitsky for corruption was illegal in the first instance, and that the beating he suffered contributed to his death.
Following an appeal by the Human Rights Council made one week after Magnitsky’s death, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered an investigation by the general prosecutor’s office and the ministry of justice. Thus far, the only charges brought forward in connection with the case have been of two doctors in Butyrka State Prison—the facility where Magnitsky was held prior to his transfer to Matrosskaya Tishina—for medical neglect. Yet the grounds for these charges, issued by the Russian State Investigative Committee, were false: accusing the doctors of failing to diagnose Magnitsky with diabetes and hepatitis, despite the fact that there is no evidence he suffered from either condition. While Medvedev has publicly acknowledged that “to all appearance, indeed, some crimes were committed,” the interior ministry rejected the findings of the independent investigations into the death.
As for the theft that precipitated Magnitsky’s detention and death, the interior ministry officials accused of perpetrating the theft of the $230 million were exonerated by general prosecutor Yuriy Chaika and by the interior ministry on the specious grounds that the officials who rebated the ministry were “tricked.” Subsequent criminal complaints filed by Magnitsky’s former employers on the matter have been ignored, and three officers involved in both Magnitsky’s detention and the crooked tax rebate—Oleg Silchenko, Pavel Karpov, and Artem Kuznetsov—were actually promoted. Other officials implicated in Magnitsky’s mistreatment in custody were awarded state honors.
The fact that Magnitsky’s persecutors and those complicit in his death were confident enough to record the mistreatment and neglect which led to his death speaks to the culture of impunity deep within the system. To add insult to injury, almost a year after his death, the prosecutor’s office reopened the criminal case accusing Magnitsky of the $230 million tax fraud, and the interior ministry announced that his guilt is “fully proven.”
Luckily, those who worked with Sergei Magnitsky, and others who have been galvanized by his story, have refused to let matters lie. The public release of this new tranche of evidence will add momentum for the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a bill currently in the committee stage in the Senate. The bill would impose sanctions and visa bans on the individuals named as complicit in the imprisonment and death of Magnitsky. A recent amendment added a provision extending the ban to all credibly suspected human rights abusers. This has already incited a nervous State Department to quietly impose its own visa bans against the 60 people named by bill cosponsor Senator Benjamin Cardin on the so-called “Magnitsky List.” Those people were also banned, even more quietly, by the UK earlier this year. So progress is being made, but much more could be done, particularly in Europe, to make life difficult for these individuals .
Ordinary Russians have responded to the story of Magnitsky because they see themselves in him. The international community should respond to the most recent revelations by holding the perpetrators to account.
Julia Pettengill is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a think tank based in London.