Jailed lawyer’s death casts shadow on Russian justice
29 November 2009 | Updated: 30 November 2009 9:44 am | By James Swift
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News of the death of a Russian lawyer being held in custody without trial in Moscow has been met with sadness and wrath from the legal community.
Sergey Magnitsky, 37, died in a Moscow prison on 16 November after being held for almost a year. According to prosecutors he died of heart failure.
A tax lawyer at Moscow firm Firestone Duncan, Magnitsky had been advising Hermitage Capital on tax fraud allegations made against it by Russian state officials when he was implicated in the case and arrested in November 2008 on charges of tax evasion. He was denied bail on grounds that he had applied for a UK visa, something the UK Embassy later denied.
Peters & Peters partner Anand Doobay, who advises Hermitage Capital in the UK, said: “I was deeply shocked and very saddened by the news.
“There’s a great deal of concern from lawyers everywhere; the situation in Russia has been concerning for a number of years. There’s still to be an investigation into what happened, but the fact that he was detained and died is worrying enough.”
Jamison Firestone, managing partner at Firestone Duncan in Moscow, said: “Right now it’s like a kettle boiling. The Russian private media and [commentators on the] internet are outraged, but Russian state TV has hardly run anything at all.”
Mark Ellis, executive director at the International Bar Association, believes “this event suggests evidence of a weakening of the judicial system in Russia. It’s an indication that those who are highly critical of the Russian government will find themselves state nemeses, and that’s a real problem.
“Lawyers represent a fundamental feature of the rule of law and the Hermitage case shows that the judicial system is deteriorating, which contradicts the government’s claims that they’ll work on strengthening the rule of law. [Russian President Dmitri] Medvedev has said this is a priority for him, creating a dictatorship of law. It’s a dictatorship alright, but not one of law.”
According to reports, Irina Dudukina, spokeswoman for the investigative unit of the Interior Ministry, said there were no records of health problems in Magnitsky’s criminal file, but a document written by him and submitted to Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika alleges a litany of mistreatments and ignored complaints.
Magnitsky wrote: “Since approximately June 2009, while I was staying in Matrosskaya Tishina, my health deteriorated. Medical examinations carried out at the end of June [to the] beginning of July 2009 revealed gallbladder stones and pancreatitis calculous cholecystitis were diagnosed. On 9 August 2009 I made a request to see the head of the [Butyrskaya] prison indicating that my health is under threat. I received no answer to this.”
The 15-page document goes on to describe delays of up to 38 hours between hot meals, “harsh and humiliating” journeys between court hearings, insufficient time or resources to prepare for hearings, prison cells below the Russian standard of 4sq m per person (well below the European minimum of 7sq m), cells flooded with sewage, and isolation from his family and from the outside world.
“We owe it to our friend to pursue an explanation as to what happened and bring criminal charges against the people who killed him,” said Firestone. “But we’re essentially asking the people who killed him to investigate his death; and unless Medvedev or [Vladimir] Putin decide to make a decision on this, we’ll get nowhere.”
Although on 24 November Medvedev instructed Chaika and Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov to conduct an investigation into the circumstances of Magnitsky’s death, some are still sceptical.
“I wouldn’t expect any investigation to find anything else except that he died of natural causes,” says Victor Potapov, a Moscow-based legal translator.
Magnitsky leaves behind a wife and two children.
Hermitage has denied all the allegations against it and levied some of its own against the Russian state.
In a video on YouTube, the fund’s CEO William Browder - who is now on Russia’s federal search list - describes how, after speaking out publicly against corruption in Russian companies in 2005, he was denied entry into the country on grounds that he was a threat to national security.
Browder then details how, after being accused of underpaying a dividend withholding tax, his offices were raided and the documents and certificates taken were used to transfer ownership of his companies and steal $230m (£137.8m) from Russian taxpayers in a complex conspiracy.