The death of Sergei Magnitsky may not be in vain. In what we can only hope will be a tipping point for the correction of the vile injustices routinely perpetrated upon the country's seekers of justice -- its activists, journalists, and lawyers -- Russia has recently taken some small steps to gain control of what a June report by the Council of Europe described as a Kafkaesque criminal justice system.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this week fired Major-General Anatoli Mikhalkin, head of the tax crimes department of the Moscow branch of the Interior Ministry, and earlier this month, he signed a decree firing the Moscow head of the federal prison system and 20 other prison officials. Some of these officials are alleged to be responsible for the death of Magnitsky, an attorney for Bill Browder's London-based Hermitage Capital Management. Hermitage remains embroiled in a fight against Kremlin officials, defending against tax fraud charges and alleging corruption and theft among its accusers.
Magnitsky died in prison on November 16, supposedly due to a rupture to his abdominal membrane due to an acute attack of pancreatitis or perhaps due to a heart attack (Russian prison officials offered both explanation, according to Hermitage). Magnitsky's family have been denied the right to conduct an independent autopsy. "What is clear is that the abuses he suffered during his final year were what ultimately caused his death," notes Hermitage in a December 14 tribute. "Before his arrest and detention, Sergei was a healthy 36-year-old in the prime of life." Below is an excerpt from Hermitage's tribute to Sergei Magnitsky. The full text of their memorial is available here.
Hermitage is not placated by Medvedev's firings, calling for prosecutions of those responsible for imprisoning and causing the death of their counselor and friend. "We are fuelled by indignation," Browder told the Guardian.
We had hoped that the details in our complaints would be shocking enough to force the Russian authorities to investigate the fraud and to punish the corrupt officials. Instead, the Interior Ministry officers who were involved in the fraud reacted by opening criminal cases targeting the lawyers who represented HSBC and the Hermitage Fund. These lawyers tried to resist by filing complaints with the Russian authorities detailing the breach by police officers of the obligation to protect lawyers from harassment and intimidation, but that had no effect. In response, the intimidation only worsened. Finally, six of our lawyers from four different law firms were forced to either leave the country or to go into hiding.
The one lawyer who didn’t leave Russia was Sergei. In spite of the clear actions by the police targeting all of our lawyers, he was sure that he was safe because he had never done anything wrong or illegal. He believed that the law of Russia would protect him. When Jamison Firestone, the head of the law firm Sergei worked for, encouraged him to leave Russia like the other lawyers, Sergei replied, “You watch too many movies, this isn’t the 1930’s.”
His belief in justice was so strong that he went on to do something many people would be petrified to do. On October 7, 2008, he went to the offices of the Russian State Investigative Committee (the Russian equivalent of the FBI) and testified against two officers of the Interior Ministry, Lt. Colonel Artem Kuznetsov and Major Pavel Karpov, for their involvement in the theft of the Hermitage Fund companies and the theft of $230 million from the Russian budget. It was an enormously brave move, and we feared for him that day. Amazingly, Sergei was the only person who wasn’t worried. It was a big relief when he emerged from the Investigative Committee at the end of the day unscathed.
In retrospect, our relief was misguided. On November 24, 2008, just over a month after testifying against Kuznetsov and Karpov, three officers who directly reported to Kuznetsov went to Sergei’s apartment at 8am while he was preparing his children for school and arrested him. He was charged with being the director of two Hermitage Fund companies that allegedly underpaid taxes in 2001. He was arrested in spite of the facts that the companies had clean audits, the statute of limitations expired in 2004 and Sergei was neither a director nor had any other role at these two companies in 2001 so he couldn’t have had any legal responsibility for taxes, underpaid or not. However, the law didn’t matter because the investigators had other plans for Sergei.