The Kremlin's Investigative Committee, Russia's top law enforcement body, has ended its inquiry into the 2009 prison death of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, saying it can find no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the way his life ended.
It's the latest surprise in a case that has long been viewed as the acid test of the Kremlin's willingness to fight corruption within its own government ranks. The issue has been front-and-center as US-Russia relations have gone into a downward spiral of acrimony and mistrust in recent months. A controversial US law signed by President Obama in December, which aims to punish Russian human rights violators, is named the Magnitsky Act.
The reason the Investigative Committee's finding comes as a bit of a surprise is because some element of foul play in Mr. Magnitsky's prison death had previously been the single point that all sides had agreed upon in the extremely complicated, contentious, and tragic story of Sergei Magnitsky.
"This decision by the Russian investigative authorities is a clear indication that they have decided to ignore the conclusions of two independent domestic commissions on the case," Hermitage Capital, Mr. Magnitsky's former employer, said in a statement.
"It is a sign of an overwhelming government cover up, and the extent that the Russian government is ready to go to protect those exposed by Magnitsky for committing crimes against the state," it said.
Magnitsky was a lawyer working for Hermitage 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 twice went to the State Investigative Committee 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 never looked into Magnitsky's evidence, and has since exonerated most of those he accused. But Magnitsky himself was soon arrested by the very same police officers who had conducted the earlier raid on Hermitage's Moscow office. He was charged, ironically, with tax evasion and lodged in Moscow's notorious Matrosskaya Tishina pretrial detention center. Within a year, Magnitsky was dead.
Bill Browder, head of Hermitage and Magnitsky's former boss, has bankrolled private investigators to chase down the money embezzled by officials that he says framed Magnitsky and, with the cooperation of Western authorities, they have found it in Swiss bank accounts, London real estate, and even a seaside mansion in Dubai. The investigation is summarized in a 75-page report that's available online.
Mr. Browder has also lobbied Western governments to pass legislation that he says will do what the Russian justice system appears unable to do, which is to provide some measure of punishment for those he says murdered Magnitsky.
Two independent Russian investigations have found that, on the night of his death, Magnitsky was taken into a cell in handcuffs by several officers while an ambulance that had come for him was forced to wait outside the prison gates for more than an hour.
A 2011 report by the Kremlin's own in-house human rights commission concluded that he died because he'd been denied medical treatment throughout his stay in prison, and because he'd been savagely beaten on the night of his death.
'Very sad case' and symbol of discord
After reading that report, then-President Dmitry Medvedev publicly remarked that "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."
Valery Borschyov, a former judge and member of the Public Monitoring Commission, an officially-recognized public oversight body for prisons, was one of the first independent experts to examine the case.
"There are documents regarding the use of a billy club, handcuffs, that show he was beaten," Mr. Borschyov told the independent Interfax agency Tuesday.
"There is a death certificate that said he had a traumatic brain injury," he added.
But over the past year, as the Magnitsky case has become an increasingly painful symbol of US-Russia discord, Russian authorities have hardened their position and Russian courts have – conveniently or not – handed down decisions that buttress their narrative.
Two prison doctors who had initially been charged with negligence in Magnitsky's death have been acquitted by courts.
The Russian government has arranged to put the dead Magnitsky on trial, in order to prove the original charge of tax evasion against him, but the trial keeps being postponed because Magnitsky's family refuse to participate. Court will reconvene on Friday in the latest attempt to get the case underway.
"It would be difficult to find a more telling example than this trial to demonstrate that Russian courts are used as political instruments," says Alexander Podrabinek, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, who's now editor of the Prima News online news agency.
"I have never heard of putting a ghost on trial before; Magnitsky's case should have been closed when he died.... But the Russian authorities are in search of arguments to counter the international campaign around Magnitsky, and it appears that there are no limits to what they will try," he says.
Browder, who has been banned from Russia for six years, will be tried alongside Magnitsky in absentia. Russian authorities have lately piled more charges onto Browder, including the accusation that he attempted to illegally buy shares of the state natural gas monopoly Gazprom a dozen years ago.
"If this trial is happening, it means that somebody needs it," says Yury Kostanov, a leading attorney and vice-president of the Moscow bar association.
"You know, I think our courts are already so discredited that it would be hard to make it worse. This trial has nothing in common with justice."