Sergei Magnitsky: How a dead man was put on trial
THE court calls Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He’s a bit slow to take the stand. He’s a bit quiet. This is because Sergei Magnitsky is dead. He died in a Russian prison from pancreatitis. He’s buried at Moscow’s Preobrazhensky cemetery.
Mr Magnitsky was first arrested in 2008. The lawyer with US firm Firestone Duncan had been working for London-based Hermitage Capital Management. He claimed to have uncovered a massive fraud worth £125m. He told all to officials. He was then arrested for alleged tax evasion and sent to prison, where he was beaten and denied medical help. He was had been held for a year without charge. Well, just under a year. In Russia, you can be held for anything up a year without charge. That time would have lapsed on November 24. He died on Monday, November 16. Such was his misfortune.
He was kept in squalor. In his affidavit, Magnitsky noted:
“…sewage started to rise from the drain under the sink [the] floor was covered with sewage several centimetres thick … for the 10 months I have been under arrest, the investigator has not let me meet with my wife, mother or any other relative”. “Isolation from the outside world exceeds all reasonable limits …
In July 2009, Magnitsky was diagnosed with “gall bladder stones, pancreatitis and calculous cholecystitis“. He blamed that on his confinement:
“Prior to confinement, I didn’t have these illnesses or at least there were no symptoms.”
Irina Dudukina, spokesman for the prosecutors’ investigative committee, said in November 2009:
“He was a key witness and his evidence was very important. The tragic news about his death came as a complete surprise. He had complained about the conditions of his detention but never his health.”
Spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Investigative Committee Irina Dudukina speaks at a news conference on the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009.
Bill Browder of Hermitage Capital said Sergei Magnitsky, had in effect been “held hostage and they killed their hostage”. He had hired Magnitsky to search for fraud against his company. The Russian elite were not willing to play fair:
In 2005, Mr Browder was banned from Russia as a threat to national security after allegations that his firms had evaded tax, but Mr Browder says his company was targeted by criminals trying to seize millions of pounds worth of his assets. Mr Browder says he was punished for being a threat to corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Since then, a number of Mr Browder’s associates in Russia – as well as lawyers acting for his company – have been detained, beaten or robbed.
” Sergei Magnitsky was one of the lawyers who discovered the whole crime, figured out who was responsible and then testified against the police officers – and after he testified against the police officers, the very same police officers had him arrested on spurious charges… When Putin first showed up and said he was going to tame the oligarchs, I was the biggest fan of that particular concept. Then I realised that what he meant by taming the oligarchs was sticking law enforcement people in their place. Now, you have a bunch of law enforcement people who are essentially organised criminals with unlimited power to ruin lives, take property and do whatever they like and that’s far worse than I have ever seen in Russia before. Russia is essentially a criminal state now.
Photo: In this Monday, Nov. 30, 2009 file photo Nataliya Magnitskaya, mother of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in jail, holds a photo of her son.
The matter went global.
The US created the Magnitsky Act. The US Senate approved legislation that blacklists Russian officials accused of human rights violations. Visa bans and asset freezes were imposed on Russian officials accused of being behind the lawyer’s death. The Russians responded by saying:
“It is strange and savage to hear human rights claims from politicians of the state that officially legalised torture and kidnappings all over the world in the 21st century.”
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said his country would create a “mirror response”:
“Either they have forgotten what year it is in Washington, and think it is still the Cold War, or these senators have become too distracted by the opportunity for self promotion to realise the obvious: any country can close its borders to whomever it wants, without requiring special legislative acts.”
Block the borders and Russian officials may not longer enjoy the delights of the West and those second homes. The Act will hurt them.
Benjamin Cardin, the Maryland senator who was one of the authors of the Magnitsky bill, added.
“I encourage other nations to follow our lead.”
President Vladimir Putin then signed into law a ban on US citizens adopting Russian children. When the going get tough, stick it to the most vulnerable.
Photo: President Barack Obama stands up and points after he signed the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. From left are: House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Md.; Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich.; Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.; Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.; Douglas Oberhelman, Chairman and CEO, Caterpillar, Inc.; Dr. Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank; and Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Mr Browder again:
“This is just pure vindictive nastiness because they are trying to get some sort of conviction straight away. They can then go around the world and say ‘Look, you’re naming a law after a convicted criminal’.”
So. How did Magnitsky die?
In 2011, news was that the prison doctors, Dr. Larisa Litvinova and Dr. Dmitri Kratov, would be made to answer to the courts. Magnitsky’s aunt, Tatyana N. Rudenko, said:
“Of course, it gives us some hope, but we still don’t know what will be next. We don’t believe that the responsibility ends with the doctors. I am afraid it will stop with the doctors.”
“To somehow isolate it to the last night of his life — to a bunch of doctors — is an amazingly cynical way to circle the wagons and protect the government figures who played a role in this thing.”
In April 2011, the case against Litvinova was dropped. In December 2012, Kratov was cleared of negligence.
Photo: Dmitry Kratov, sits in a courtroom, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Dec. 28, 2012.
But one man will go on trial. In March Sergei Magnitsky will be made to answer to the courts. They’ll make an example of him…
Photo: Russian actress Diana Rakhimova in the role of Magnitsky’s mother, performs in the play titled “1:18” in Theater.doc in Moscow, Friday, June 4, 2010. A new play about Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died behind bars after he was denied medical help is calling for justice in the case, which spotlighted both Russia’s foreboding prisons and the dangers of challenging the powerful.
You can read Bill Browder’s version of the events here.
After a short time investigating, Sergei presented us with a number of disturbing details. First, he discovered that our three investment holding companies had been stolen— the seals and documents seized during raids on our offices had been used to fraudulently transfer the ownership of the companies to a new company called Pluton in Tatarstan.
‘Sergei discovered that contracts had been forged to support a billion dollars worth of fake claims against out companies. Our companies had been taken to court without our knowledge — because we no longer owned them — and the new owners had instructed three corrupt lawyers to plead guilty to the $1 billion of fake liabilities.’
Second, he discovered that Pluton was owned by a convicted killer named Viktor Markelov, who had been let out of jail early, presumably in order to put his name on the forged documents. Thirdly, and most incredibly, Sergei discovered that contracts had been forged to support a billion dollars worth of fake claims against out companies. Our companies had been taken to court without our knowledge — because we no longer owned them — and the new owners had instructed three corrupt lawyers to plead guilty to the $1 billion of fake liabilities.
Normally, if a judge sees two parties in a big-money lawsuit agreeing with each other in the first five minutes of a hearing, he or she would ask the obvious question: ‘Why are you in court? Why didn’t you settle before? Why are you wasting the court’s time?’ The judges here showed no such curiosity, and immediately awarded a billion dollars of damages against our empty investment holding companies, based on obviously forged contracts.
After securing $1 billion of fake court judgments, the same police officers who raided our office proceeded to raid all our banks in Moscow, looking to seize a billion dollars in assets to satisfy the fake claims. We started getting panicked phone calls from our bankers, saying, ‘The police are here, they’re asking for all your documents. What’s going on? What have you done?’ We were much less nervous than the bankers, because we had no assets left in Russia.
That Cold War gets hotter.