It's almost unheard of for a Russian leader to side with human rights activists against his top officials.
But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to do that Tuesday after being handed a scathing report, prepared by the Kremlin's own human rights commission, that described the 2009 prison death of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky as the work of prison guards who savagely beat him and doctors who refused to treat him. The report also blamed top officials for covering up the whole affair.
"The case of Magnitsky is a very sad case, for this man is dead, and in all likelihood, there were certain criminal actions that led to this result," Mr. Medvedev said after meeting with the commission, an advisory body that includes some of Russia's top human rights campaigners.
While the Kremlin commission's advice is often ignored, experts say things might be different this time. The report given to Medvedev, which clashes sharply with the findings of an official investigation, not only describes the appalling conditions Mr. Magnitsky was subjected to but also names several prison officials and medical authorities who allegedly colluded in the abuse.
"Our report is no abstract document," says Valery Borshchev, a former Duma deputy and coauthor of the report. "We name the people actually responsible for what happened to Magnitsky and cite the evidence that permits us to accuse them of corruption and other legal violations. We name the doctors who withheld medical assistance from him. We don't name any top officials because their involvement has yet to be proven."
Unlawful arrest, brutal detention
Magnitsky, a lawyer with the British-based Hermitage Capital, had filed a 2008 lawsuit alleging a $230 million tax fraud by a number of top Russian law enforcement officials. Within weeks, he was arrested by some of those same officials, charged with fraud, and taken to Matrosskaya Tishina, a notorious Moscow pretrial detention center.
A year later, Magnitsky died of heart failure in prison after apparently being denied medical treatment. The case, which seemed to exemplify the worst of Russia's corruption-ridden justice system and violence-plagued prisons, attracted widespread attention. At the time, Medvedev promised a full investigation.
But the official inquiry presented Monday found no fault with prison officials and merely blamed unnamed doctors for not acting efficiently in his case.
"The experts identified deficiencies in the medical care given to Magnitsky during his detention, which may have prevented a timely diagnosis of his chronic illness," a spokesman for the official Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, told journalists. "In this regard, he was not provided with timely and appropriate treatment."
But the report given to Medvedev the next day by the Kremlin human rights panel provided evidence that Magnitsky's original arrest was unlawful, that his detention was marked by beatings and possibly torture aimed at extracting a confession of guilt, and that prison officials instructed doctors not to treat him.
"It is clear that Magnitsky, who was in a critical state of health, was beaten in prison," says Mr. Borshchev.
On the night he died "he was delivered to Matrosskaya Tishina in serious condition. But the doctor on duty, instead of treating him, allowed eight guards to take him into a small cell in handcuffs. The doctor also called an ambulance, but it was not allowed to enter the prison gates for over an hour. When [medical personnel] were able to enter, Magnitsky was already dead. It is a recorded fact that he had been beaten by truncheons," he says.
"We insist that several members of the [official] Investigation Committee be made to answer for their conduct, as well as certain judges who abetted his illegal arrest, prolonged his detention and denied his relatives permission to visit him in prison ... .
"It is clear that the system swept down on Magnitsky and destroyed him," he adds. "The lesson here is that a person is defenseless against the system."
Signs of reform
Some members of the commission say that the fact that Medvedev has defied the official investigation and admitted that "criminal actions" played a role in Magnitsky's death means that the system can be reformed.
"I think Magnitsky's case is proof that our society, supported by the president, can force the system to be accountable," says Kiril Kabanov, head of the official National Anti-Corruption Committee. "Right now we have a lot of other cases similar to Magnitsky's, which means that what happened to him is not that unusual."
He says there is a lot of institutional resistance to revealing and punishing abuses, and dealing with it will require a big push from the Kremlin.
"Officials tend to cover up and protect their workers [who commit abuse], and seem ready to accuse anybody else – even international conspiracies – for the allegations against them, rather than own up to the real state of affairs," he says.
Another commission member, former judge Mara Polyakova, says reform will not be easy.
"This case spotlights all the defects of our law enforcement organs and courts which we've long known about," she says. "The fact that the Magnitsky case has attracted such resonance is good, but don't imagine all the vice we're dealing with can be eliminated at a single stroke. The system itself is vile, and change will be a long, hard struggle."
Last month Russia's top prosecutor, Yury Chaika, slammed the US Senate for introducing a bill, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, which would deny US visas and freeze the US-based assets of Russian officials accused of committing illegal reprisals against human rights activists. This week, the Dutch parliament unanimously passed a similar resolution.
"Investigative bodies and the Russian justice system are coming under pressure. I believe that this is unacceptable," Mr. Chaika said.
"What makes this case truly unique is the very diverse effort to compel the Russian government to investigate thoroughly, and not to let the perpetrators get away with it. The president was forced to say something he never would have said in public otherwise," she says.
"Medvedev's words suggest an effort by nervous Russian officials to try to soften their position, reconcile with the US, Holland, and other foreign countries. It's a struggle, but the threat of sanctions against Russian officials, who like to stash their assets abroad and travel to foreign countries, is something that appears to be working," she says.
"Now we must wait to see what happens next. Is this as far as Medvedev is prepared to go? People are waiting for more than words, they want to see something definitive, proceedings opened, charges laid against the perpetrators. That would be something," she adds.