A year one, anger rages over Russian lawyer's prison death

15th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

The death in a fetid Moscow jail of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was aged just 37 and had spent a year locked up without ever being convicted of a crime, still angers rights activists a year on.

Magnitsky's death from untreated illnesses on November 16, 2009, while he was in pre-trial detention, is one of the most flagrant violations of human rights in Russia in the past years, they say.

The lawyer 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 been charged over Magnitsky's death and the interior ministry last week even awarded the same officials 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 posthumously gave Magnitsky one of its Integrity Awards for fighting corruption.

His "commitment to integrity ultimately cost him his life", it said.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has pledged to reduce the numbers of suspects in pre-trial detention for white collar crimes, ordered an investigation just one week after Magnitsky died.

His death also became the subject of a highly praised play 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 there was no reason to believe the officials who handled the case were responsible or that Magnitsky was subjected to physical pressure.

The interior ministry's investigative committee last week even 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.

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

Spokeswoman Irina Dudukinka rejected that Magnitsky was even a lawyer and said he worked as an accountant for the Hermitage fund. In this role, "he worked out a tax evasion scheme", she said.

Two Russian businessmen -- Vyacheslav Khlebnikov and Viktor Markelov -- had been detained in the case and gave evidence against Magnitsky, she said.

In response, Hermitage Capital said: "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."

Magnitsky was held in Moscow's notorious Butyrka jail which housed political rebels in Tsarist times and top dissidents in the Soviet Union.

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 in jail and his supporters argue he was deliberately refused help in a bid to break him.

© 2010 AFP

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