Sergei L. Magnitsky was a lawyer, accountant and tax partner at Moscow law firm Firestone Duncan. He was arrested in November 2008 after he helped Hermitage, once Russia’s largest foreign portfolio investor, reveal the biggest alleged tax fraud in the country’s history. He died in prison while awaiting trial.Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the chief prosecutor and justice minister to launch an investigation into his death. The $230m crime allegedly involved senior police officers, judges, tax officials, bankers and the mafia. Hermitage Capital Management‘s CEO and Founder is William Browder, an American financier who took British citizenship and is the grandson of the former leader of the American Communist party. Bill Browder was a vocal supporter of Russia’s prime minister and former president Vladimir Putin. The fund manager was alleged to have evaded taxes and was barred from the country in 2005 but its CEO denies these allegations.
He urged all his lawyers to leave Russia for their safety but Magntisky stayed. His arrest came after he testified against a Russian Interior Ministry official involved in a tax raid on Hermitage’s offices and the official’s involvment in a $230 million fraud. Magnitsky was charged with participating in R500m (£10m) tax evasion at two subsidiaries of Hermitage Capital Management. According to Bill Browder:
“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.”
Deaths in prison are a common occurence in Russia but Magnitsky’s role in defending Hermitage has meant his case has drawn wider attention and immediate comment. Russia’s President Medvedev has now ordered Russia’s chief prosecutor and justice minister to investigate the case according to a Kremlin statement.
Medical condition and death
Magnitsky, a 37-year-old father of two sons, died on Monday, 16th November 2009 in Butyrskaya prison after nearly a year of imprisonment in Moscow. He died four days after his last court appearance, his heart allegedly stopped due to complications of pancreatitis, a condition he had developed during his incarceration for which he was allegedly refused treatment.
Magnitsky’s mother was told of her son’s death when she arrived at Butyrka detention centre to deliver some personal effects and was told he had been moved to Matrosskaya Tishina. On her arrival there, she was told her son had died the previous day. In July 2009 he was diagnosed with gall bladder stones, pancreatitis and calculous cholecystitis. Although prison authorities allowed his relatives to post him various medicine and pills, they did not allow him any more substantial treatment even though doctors said he needed an operation. The pain became so crippling that towards the end of his life he could not even lie down.
In the last court appearance before his death, the prosecution served late new evidence to the judge as it sought to extend his detention and the judge accepted it, refusing to give Magnitsky’s legal team time to study the material. Mr Magnitsky accused the authorities of turning his trial into a sham and that he had been denied his most basic human rights. His final plea was, “My right… for adequate time and facilities to prepare my defence has been brazenly violated and all petitions that I submitted to the court requesting that this right be ensured have been simply ignored”.
Russian authorities have refused to allow a second, independent autopsy. His lawyers said that the authorities originally claimed he died from a rupture to the abdominal membrane before changing the cause of death to a heart attack. Accoding to the Sunday Telegraph, when his body was released for burial – just before the funeral – his hands and fingers appeared “all smashed up”.
Conditions of Detention
In a 40-page affidavit sent to Russia’s general prosecutor, Mr Magnitsky recorded his mistreatment and the squalid conditions of the prison in which he was kept for 11 months. At times, he was detained in a 8.2 square metre cell with three fellow inmates. “Rats run freely along the sewer system… and at night you can hear them squeaking,” he wrote.
According to Andrei Jarikov, his brother-in-law, the prison authorities did not act responsibly: “When he complained that he was having problems with his health they simply did nothing … They had a duty.”
Jamison Firestone, managing partner at Firestone Duncan, 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, has stated: “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.”