November 22, 2009

SERGEI Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was campaigning against fraud and corruption, died in a notorious Moscow jail last week just days before he was due to be released. He had been kept there without trial for 12 months.

He had been held in shocking squalor. The prison was overrun with rats while cells were sometimes swamped with sewage. Mr Magnitsky was repeatedly denied medical treatment for pancreatitis despite severe pain. His former client, the hedge fund Hermitage Capital ­Management, issued a statement days before his death detailing how he had been chained and put in a cage.

The Russian authorities attributed his death on November 16 to a rupture to the abdominal membrane before changing their story later the same day to a heart attack. But friends say ­pictures of his body show bruises on his hands, which indicate that some type of struggle ocurred before he died.

The authorities have fuelled suspicions of foul pay by rejecting autopsy requests.

Mr Magnitsky’s widow Natalya is vowing to stay in Russia with their two sons as they fight for justice .

The British Foreign Office has formally asked the Russian foreign ministry to investigate his death, diplomatic sources have told the Sunday Express.

The formal request adds to a growing list of issues between the two countries. This includes the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko on British soil, the shutdown of British Council activities outside Moscow and the new trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of oil firm Yukos who has already been jailed in Siberia for tax fraud.

Mr Magnitsky, 37, had been charged with participating in a 500million rouble (£10million) tax evasion scheme at two subsidiaries of Hermitage Capital Management, the hedge fund managed by financier Bill Browder.

In court, Mr Magnitsky claimed to have been the victim of a “personal vendetta” for testifying against a senior police officer, whom he argued was central to an alleged £140million tax fraud he had uncovered that implicated the police, members of the judiciary, tax officials, bankers and the Russian mafia.

Mr Magnitsky’s death is the latest, twist in the story of Hermitage Capital Management, set up by Mr Browder in 1996 to invest in Russia’s stock market. Mr Browder said yesterday: “This is one of the worst stories that has ever happened. It combines death, spectacular injustice and torture at the hands of the officials he testified against.”

The US-born financier, who is now a British citizen, was banned from

Russia in 2005 after attacking corruption at some of the country’s biggest companies.

After Mr Browder spoke out against corruption, Hermitage suffered an extortion attempt and police raids on its offices, which culminated in three Russian subsidiaries being expropriated in 2007 using documents seized by the Moscow police.

Fraudsters used the documents to apply for a £140million tax refund. The refund, the largest in Russian history, was handed over in just two days.

Mr Magnitsky was arrested last November after he testified against the police officers who had seized Hermitage documents. Six other lawyers who advised Hermitage have fled Russia or are in hiding.

Mr Magnitsky was held in pre-trial detention in the notorious Butyrskaya prison in Moscow. In a 40-page affidavit sent to Russia’s general prosecutor, Mr Magnitsky, Hermitage’s tax lawyer, recorded his mistreatment and the squalid conditions of the prison in which he was kept for 11 months.

At times, he was held in a 8.2 square metre cell with three other inmates. “Rats run freely along the sewer system…and at night you can hear them squeaking,” he wrote.

On one occasion, “sewage started to rise from the drain under the sink” until the “floor was covered with sewage several centimetres thick”.

At another point he was denied a shower for two weeks and “for the 10 months I have been under arrest, the investigator has not let me meet with my wife, mother or any other relative”.

He also wrote: “Since June my health deteriorated.”

He was diagnosed in July with “gall bladder stones, pancreatitis and calculous cholecystitis. Prior to confinement I didn’t have these illnesses or at least there were no symptoms”.

Originally, he was given medical care but after being moved to the notorious Butyrskaya prison, he was denied his drugs for more than a month. He recorded: “On August 24, the pain became so acute I was not even able to lie down. My cellmate started to knock on the door demanding for me to be taken to a doctor.”

Jamison Firestone, managing partner at Firestone Duncan the Moscow law firm where Mr Magnitsky worked, said: “They took a healthy guy, imprisoned him without cause, put him in such horrific conditions that he got a severe illness. Then they denied him medical care.”

Irina Dudukina, spokesman for the prosecutors’ investigative committee, said earlier this week: “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.”

His death came a week before he was due to be released. Under Russian law, defendants cannot be held longer than a year without trial, a deadline that would have expired this Tuesday.

Mr Magnitsky’s widow Natalya, 37, and her sons, aged 16 and eight, “will stay in Russia” as challenges are made aimed at establishing the lawyer was murdered and punishing those responsible.

“She has no plans to flee Moscow,” said a source close to the family. “Like Sergei before he was arrested, he said he had no reasons to run because he was not guilty and no one would intimidate him. He believed justice was on his side because he hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Lawyer Dmitry Kharitonov said: “Our aim is to first to answer the question why Sergei died, and second to punish those who are guilty. I hope it will happen, but can’t predict how long it might take. We want to start a criminal case and prevent his medical documents from vanishing, because at the moment there is a great risk that someone will destroy them.”

He is considering asking Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to intervene in the case and prove his commitment to sweep away corruption in Russia. Kharitonov will also seek to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

“Doctors have a duty to treat people who are sick,” said a relative as Mr Magnitsky was buried in Moscow on Friday. “And they simply did not treat him. In this way, they killed him but I don’t know if they did it intentionally.”

The authorities refused to let an independent medical expert attend a prison autopsy then refused a separate autopsy . Officials at the morgue warned Mr Magnitsky’s mother that refrigerator was failing but refused her request to transfer him to a different morgue.

The Magnitsky case is now in the Foreign Office’s bulging Russia in-tray. Officials there could be forgiven for thinking the Cold War had started up again.

Original published in Daily Express.


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