US Magnitsky Law draws Kremlin ire – but many Russians support it
The new law, enacted in the US last week to target Russians involved in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, has infuriated the Kremlin, which sees it as a 'purely political, unfriendly act.'
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"The [Magnitsky List] is a crazy precedent, because a legislative body has taken over the functions of a court," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Duma's international affairs commission, which was responsible for drafting the retaliatory Yakovlev List.Skip to next paragraph
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"For the first time in human history they presume to nominate the 'guilty' and then keep the list secret.... This is already influencing our relationship [with the US], all this past year while it was being discussed," he adds.
Who was Magnitsky?
Magnitsky was a lawyer working for the London-based Hermitage Capital – once the largest foreign investor in Russia – when he uncovered what he alleged was a vast scam by top Russian police and tax officials to embezzle $230 million in taxes paid by Hermitage firms in 2006.
He went to the State Investigative Committee, Russia's top investigative body, and testified that officials had falsely re-registered Hermitage companies under other names, using company seals and charters seized in an earlier police raid, and subsequently received a full tax rebate with the help of highly-placed accomplices in the tax department.
The Investigative Committee has apparently never looked into Magnitsky's evidence. Instead, Magnitsky was soon arrested by the very same police officers who had conducted the earlier raid on Hermitage's Moscow office and charged, ironically, with tax evasion. Within a year, Magnitsky was dead. A report by the Kremlin's own human rights commission concluded in 2011 that Magnitsky had been systematically denied medical attention, was illegally prosecuted by the same officials he had implicated, was almost certainly beaten to death, and the whole affair was subsequently covered up.
Russia's top prosecutor has announced that the deceased Magnitsky will be put back on trial in January, with his mother standing in for him, even though such a posthumous trial is of dubious legality and has no precedents in Russian law.
"Official behavior in the Magnitsky case is bizarre. They seem convinced that it's all a humiliation of Russia, though there is serious evidence that has been gathered by foreigners about the case, who were basically doing the work that our investigators should have done," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.
Magnitsky's former boss and head of Hermitage Capital, Bill Browder, has spent the past three years bankrolling private investigators and lobbying foreign governments to enact legislation like the Magnitsky List. He has compiled a 75-page report which summarizes what looks like a devastating case against an alleged crime organization inside Russia's government and the systematic efforts of the Kremlin to protect it.
'A positive step'
"The Magnitsky Act is a positive step; for the first time international legal sanctions are targeting Russian human rights violators," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an expert with For Human Rights, a grassroots Moscow-based coalition.
"It means that the international community is starting to recognize that the routine conspiracies against justice practiced by Russian officials represent a threat beyond the borders of Russia," he adds.
But Sergei Markov, vice rector of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to President Putin, argues that the US has started a diplomatic fight with the Magnitsky Act that can only befoul the relationship and block any productive outcomes in the Magnitsky case.
"An insult has to be answered," he says. "The US law violates the presumption of innocence concerning a number of Russian state officials, it expresses a lack of trust toward the Russian legal system, and there is considerable fear that the number of people added to the list will keep growing.... What worries me most is that this the Magnitsky Act might start a chain of negative reactions."