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?

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters
A representative of Russian Interior Ministry Irina Dudukina speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Wednesday. Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a high-level criminal probe into the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky.

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.

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.

"This case is very troubling, because there were credible allegations of serious government wrongdoing at almost every stage," says Allison Gill, director of the Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch.

"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.

"Medvedev is eager to punish someone for this scandal," says Nikolai Petrov, director of the civil society program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"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."

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