Sergei Magnitsky: symbol of prison abuse in Russia

6th December 2012, Comments 0 comments

Sergei Magnitsky, whose case triggered a US-Russia row on Thursday, was a lawyer working for a Western firm who died in pre-trial jail at 37 in Moscow in 2009 after claiming to have discovered a major tax fraud covered up by government officials.

He died after spending almost a year under pre-trial arrest that his mother said had exposed him to "torture conditions" and which his employer called retribution for his testimony against interior ministry officers.

Prosecutors said that Magnitsky died from acute heart and pancreatic failure and fluid in the brain in combination with other conditions, including diabetes.

Human rights campaigners, including the Kremlin's human rights council, said that the lawyer was ill-treated deliberately and even tortured, handcuffed one hour before his death despite suffering from acute pain.

Magnitsky's firm Firestone Duncan was providing legal support to what was once Russia's largest investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, whose head William Browder fell out of favour with the Kremlin and was denied a visa in 2005.

Prior to his arrest, Sergei Magnitsky claimed to have uncovered a scheme used by police officials to reclaim about $235 million in taxes paid by his client.

However instead of looking into the claims Russia charged the lawyer with fraud and locked him up in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina jail, later transferring him to Moscow's infamous Butyrka prison.

His death caused an international outrage, whose ripple effects are still felt today.

Though it voted Thursday to end Cold War-era trade restrictions on Moscow after it joined the WTO, the US Senate attached a measure which would compel Washington to freeze the assets of and deny entry to anyone tied to Magnitsky's death.

Russia vowed to retaliate against the legislation which now goes to the White House for approval.

Hermitage's Browder had already unleashed a PR campaign to hold those responsible for his death accountable, making a film about Magnitsky and exposing the officials allegedly behind his death and their property purchases seemingly far beyond their income.

In one interview, Browder said that the corruption scheme Magnitsky was investigating involved several top officials, including a government minister.

Outrage over Magnitsky's death pushed then-president Dmitry Medvedev to order a probe into his death and dismiss several prison officials.

The probe involved two doctors supervising his care in the prison system, who were charged with negligence.

However rights activists said that the doctor Larisa Litvinova and Butyrka prison medical chief Dmitry Kratov were likely to be only scapegoats after being ordered to mistreat the lawyer by their officials who wanted him dead.

In April charges were dropped against Litvinova due to the statute of limitations, while Kratov pleaded not guilty in September in his ongoing trial.

Notoriously, the interior ministry's investigative committee gave its "Best Investigator" award to Pavel Karpov, the man accused by Magnitsky of being behind the embezzlement scam.

It gave a similar honour to Oleg Silchenko, who led the criminal case against the lawyer, and an "Honoured Interior Ministry Employee" award to Natalya Vinogradova, also involved in the investigation.


© 2012 AFP

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