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?
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"Medvedev should react to this because it's important on many levels, and he has made fighting corruption a major focus of his presidency," she adds.
Magnitsky death: a surprise?
After Magnitsky died in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina jail last week, police spokeswoman Irina Dudkina told journalists that his death was "a complete surprise.... He had never complained about his health to the judge or to the investigators," she said.
But journalists have obtained letters sent by Magnitsky to Russia's prosecutor general (read translated excerpts here) in which he complains about mistreatment and appalling conditions in the tiny cell that he shared with three other inmates awaiting trial. He was held there for almost a year.
"I was not given any medical aid in relation to my illness (pancreatitis)," with which he had been diagnosed, he said. "I was not given any medical recommendations regarding this illness and there was no effort to provide me with the necessary diet."
Magnitsky was hastily buried last Friday after prosecutors denied requests for an independent autopsy and the morgue where his body was being held claimed that its refrigerators had broken down.
"What is undeniably clear is that this man died in state custody, and the authorities therefore have the obligation to thoroughly investigate what happened," says Ms. Gill. "There should have been a real autopsy, and the fact that it did not take place is a violation of the state's obligations."
Some human rights experts allege that denial of medical attention is frequently used to bring pressure on suspects in Russian pre-trial detention centers, and that doctors have been known to work in concert with interrogators.
"I do not exclude the possibility that Magnitsky was denied treatment on purpose, and that he was killed slowly," says Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran human rights campaigner and board member of the Fund to Protect Prisoners' Rights, a public group that works for prison reform. "The problem with medical treatment in prisons is that medical workers who serve there are under constant pressure from their bosses. There are good doctors who leave because they just cannot continue," to work under those conditions, he says.
Interior ministry officials did not return the Monitor's calls for comment on Magnitsky's case.
Plans have often been announced to reform Russia's prison system, and in particular the squalid conditions in pre-trial detention centers, where prisoners can languish for years before getting their day in court. Mr. Ikhlov says that at least 55 prisoners have died in Moscow's eight pre-trial detention facilities since January of this year.
But despite a great deal of reformist rhetoric from former president Vladimir Putin, and his successor Medvedev, experts say Russia's human rights picture is growing worse. At least one prison reform advocate has been murdered this year, and experts say others face regular official harassment and threats.
Human rights analysts say the results from the Magnitsky investigation will be a key litmus test of whether Medvedev is serious in his recent calls for modernization and rule-of-law in Russia.
"The question is whether just a few police officers will be scapegoated for this. That would be an easy way for Medvedev to improve his image without challenging the system, but it won't lead to any positive change."