Russia blames prison over top lawyer's death

4th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russian investigators on Monday for the first time acknowledged that medical neglect was responsible for the death in pre-trial detention of Western investment fund lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

The 37-year-old Hermitage Capital investment fund attorney's death in November 2009 in a holding cell at Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina sparked outrage among international rights groups and drew condemnation from Western states.

His case came to symbolise both the perils facing Western businesses in Russia and the seeming gap between President Dmitry Medvedev's more liberal rhetoric and his actual reform accomplishments.

But Hermitage Capital -- certain that Magnitsky's death came in retribution for his alleged discovery of a vast state fraud scheme that targeted Western businesses -- piled international pressure to get the case brought to court.

Magnitsky's death was also mentioned in a Moscow speech by US Vice President Joe Biden in March and more recently resulted in criminal inquiries and sanctions in Europe.

Medvedev eventually decided this year to ask investigators to look into some of the Western fund's complaints and their report Monday suggested that prison officials were at fault.

"Deficiencies in the medical care given to Magnitsky have a direct cause-and-effect relationship to his death," the Investigative Committee said in a statement.

It added that investigators planned to press criminal charges against those responsible "in the near future".

"Until the charges are filed, these people's names will not be released," it added.

An inquiry by an independent Russian panel had earlier found that Magnitsky died with handcuff imprints on his wrists and had been left without medical attention for three hours on the night his heart stopped beating.

The Investigative Committee said Magnitsky died of a heart condition linked to diabetes and chronic hepatitis. It added that he also suffered from several other serious ailments at the time of his death.

Magnitsky was jailed shortly after he claimed to have unravelled an illegal scheme through which top Russian officials received returns on more than $200 million in taxes paid by the Western firm.

Hermitage Capital and its boss Bill Browder -- who himself was stripped of his Russian entry visa in 2006 after coming into conflict with some of Russia's most powerful firms -- have since moved their operations to London.

But Browder and his team have been waging a tireless campaign against the Russian tax authorities and in recent months have managed to get most of their allegations aired in the local media.

Those include reports of the tax inspector involved in the alleged fraud and her husband buying luxury villas stretching from Montenegro to Dubai.

Hermitage said it had found Swiss accounts holding tens of millions of dollars in the husband's name -- a claim that forced Credit Suisse to freeze the accounts in question.

Browder had earlier accused unnamed senior ministers of being in on the fraud.

He said Monday that he was frustrated with the Investigative Committee's findings because they were only "the tip of a very big iceberg".

"They avoided the judges, the prosecutors and jailers who systematically denied Sergei medical attention and basically tortured him," Browder told AFP by telephone from London.

"And they seem to be ignoring all the different characters who were involved in the cover-up after Sergei's death," he added.

"Medvedev is faced with a choice. If he doesn't push it any further, than he loses his international credibility and legitimacy because everyone knows that this goes well beyond a couple of prison doctors at Matrosskaya Tishina," the Hermitage Capital boss said.

© 2011 AFP

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