Anger still rages over Russian lawyer's prison death

15th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Aged just 37, Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died one year ago of untreated illnesses after a year locked up in a fetid Moscow jail without ever having been convicted of a crime.

Rights activists condemned Magnitsky's death on November 16, 2009 in pre-trial detention as one of the most flagrant violations of human rights in Russia in the last years.

Magnitsky had been charged with tax evasion in connection with his work for investment fund Hermitage Capital Management fund but supporters contend his only offence was to expose foul play by top Russian officials.

No-one has ever been charged over Magnitsky's death in jail and the interior ministry last week even gave awards to the same officials who he had accused of financial abuses and had handled his case.

"A Russian citizen was put in detention and held as a hostage by interior ministry officials, in conditions which according to Russian and international norms are seen as torture," said veteran rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki group.

Magnitsky's supporters are to mark the first anniversary of his death Tuesday by showing a slick new hour-long documentary "Justice for Sergei" in parliaments in Europe, Canada and the United States.

"Sergei Magnitsky is arrested after he uncovers the largest tax fraud in Russian history, committed by officials of the Russian government," alleges the documentary.

On the eve of the anniversary, global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International also posthumously gave Magnitsky one of its Integrity Awards for fighting against corruption.

Transparency International said his "commitment to integrity ultimately cost him his life".

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has pledged to reduce the numbers of suspects held in pre-trial detention for white collar crimes, ordered a probe just one week after Magnitsky's death.

His death even became the subject of a high-praised stage play which was shown at Moscow's Teatr.doc in a rare example of Russian theatre tackling a contemporary issue.

However Russia's top investigator Alexander Bastrykin said in September that there was no reason to believe the officials who handled the case were responsible for his death or that Magnitsky was subjected to physical pressure.

Indeed, the investigative committee of the interior ministry last week gave the award of "Best Investigator" to investigator Pavel Karpov, the very man accused by Magnitsky of of being behind the embezzlement scam.

It also gave a "Best Investigator" honour to Oleg Silchenko, who led the Magnitsky criminal case and "Honoured Interior Ministry Employee" to Natalya Vinogradova who was also involved in the investigation.

Interior ministry investigators Monday also insisted that Magnitsky was responsible of involvement in an alleged scheme by Hermitage to embezzle 5.4 billion rubles (175 million dollars) from the Russian budget through tax evasion.

The spokeswoman for the investigators, Irina Dudukinka, denied that Magnitsky was even a lawyer, saying that "he was an economist by education and worked as an accountant for the Hermitage fund."

In this role, "he worked out a tax evasion scheme", she said, citing evidence from two recently arrested businessmen.

"The interior ministry is trying to besmirch the name of Sergei Magnitsky, who in essence they killed in prison, using the fact that Sergei is no longer alive and cannot respond," Hermitage Capital said in response.

After his arrest, Magnitsky was held in the notorious Butyrka jail in the north of Moscow, which housed political rebels in Tsarist times and top dissidents in the USSR.

According to his lawyers, he fell ill with gallstones, acute calculous cholecystitis and acute pancreatitis, a diagnosis confirmed by doctors at Matrosskaya Tishina prison where he was finally transferred for treatment.

Magnitsky had repeatedly complained about his health while in jail and his supporters argue he was deliberately refused help in a bid to break him.

© 2010 AFP

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