Death of Russian lawyer tests Medvedev's anti-corruption pledge
Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky sued police for corruption, then died while in police custody. Is the investigation ordered by President Dmitry Medvedev a sign of tougher anti-corruption policy?
Russian human rights activists are voicing cautious optimism that an investigation ordered by President Dmitry Medvedev might dig up some truth about the mysterious prison death last week of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was involved in a massive corruption lawsuit against the police.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The head of the Kremlin's own human rights commission, Ella Pamfilova, on Monday urged Mr. Medvedev to take action over what she described as the "murder" of an anti-corruption activist in state custody. Mr. Magnitsky had repeatedly complained that medical treatment was being withheld as a means of pressure against him.
"We told the President about this case, and he immediately reacted and gave an order to investigate," Ms. Pamfilova says. "I think it is a disgrace," that Mr. Magnitsky, who was accused of a white collar crime, was even being held in a maximum-security pretrial detention facility, she adds.
Magnitsky's death, allegedly of toxic shock and heart failure, has evoked an unusual public outcry because his fate appears to have been sealed when he stood up to forces of corruption and official abuse that are familiar to every Russian.
Russian police are already under public scrutiny after one police officer, Alexei Dymovsky, posted a video on YouTube earlier this month, detailing official corruption, abuse of power and mistreatment of suspects.
"Medvedev had to act because the wave of public protest was getting too high," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an expert with the Moscow based "For Human Rights" public movement. "Magnitsky's death just crossed out everything Medvedev has said and written about the need to create a state based on human rights and law in Russia. It looks like it's all just words."
Magnitsky's case is a tangled and painful tale but one that, experts say, sheds light on many unpleasant sides of contemporary Russian reality.
As a partner in the Moscow law firm Duncan Firestone, Magnitsky represented William Browder, head of Heritage Capital, one of Russia's leading investment funds. Mr. Browder was accused by authorities of evading over $3 million in taxes in 2002.
The tax evasion case was leveled against Browder after he had accused senior police officials of being involved in the theft of nearly $230 million in state funds.
Browder, who lives in London, was barred from entering Russia in 2005 on "national security" grounds. He had long been a thorn in the side of powerful Russian business interests due to his public advocacy for minority shareholder rights and greater transparency in huge Russian corporations in which Hermitage held stakes, including Gazprom and the state-connected oil giant Surgutneftegaz.
As his lawyer in the corruption case, Magnitsky testified against two leading police officials who had conducted a 2007 raid on the Moscow headquarters of Hermitage.
One of those police officers, Lt. Col. Artyom Kuznetsov, was subsequently part of the investigative team that arrested Magnitsky, in November 2008, and accused him of being part of Browder's alleged tax evasion scheme.
In subsequent court hearings, Magnitsky testified that he was arrested and was being held due to a "personal vendetta" on the part of Col. Kuznetsov and other police officials, who wanted to quash the corruption case that Browder and Hermitage Capital had brought against the upper echelons of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police.