Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Sergei Magnitsky Murder: Siloviki Circle the Wagons

BROOKLYN, New York -- It has been more than two months since the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in police custody after being refused medical attention. Magnitsky represented British investor Bill Browder, founder of Hermitage Capital Management, in a case involving a huge tax fraud allegedly perpetrated by Russian police officials and uncovered by Mr. Magnitsky. He had spent nearly a year in pre-trial detention, imprisoned without charge by the very people he accused of perpetrating the fraud against his clients and the Russian government.

Were it not for his British citizenship, Mr. Browder himself could have wound up in similar circumstances. He has been refused entry to Russia since 2005, despite the fact that he runs one of the largest investment firms in the country and has been a tireless booster of investing in Russia. He is not a political activist or human rights campaigner; instead, he champions investors' rights, which are also severely trampled in Russia. He refused to play by the crooked rules of the coterie of Kremlin insiders and current and former members of the security services, the so-called siloviki, who control business in Russia. Magnitsky was a tireless advocate of his client's interests, and he was murdered because he refused to flee the country or commit perjury by implicating himself or his client for the crimes of his captors.

Since this case became an international sensation (though only after Magnitsky's captors had succeeded in killing him), President Dmitry Medvedev has done some house cleaning, firing top prison officials who oversaw Magnitsky's detention and non-existent medical treatment (he died of untreated pancreatitis and gall stones, not a heart attack and toxic shock as the government claims). As for the men who orchestrated the fraud and arrest, Viktor Markelov, a sawmill foreman and likely a bit player in the $230 million tax fraud, was convicted in April 2009 of stealing government funds (his conviction was in fact based on the investigative work of Magnitsky himself). The two police officers who orchestrated the whole affair, Lt. Col. Atryom Kuznetsov and Maj. Pavel Karpov, have been reassigned to desk jobs at the Interior Ministry, and no charges are pending against either one. Not a penny of the $230 million has been recovered.

This is how things usually work in Russia when a scandal like this breaks. The government offers up a few sacrificial lambs – this time in the form of Moscow prison director Vladimir Davydov and 19 other prison officials and the fall guy Markelov – but it always protects its own in the police.

For more details on the Magnitsky case, read Bill Browder's letter published in Foreign Policy in December. You can also listen to an interview with Browder from The Economist, which I highly recommend.

Hermitage has set up a website, Law and Order in Russia, which chronicles this entire ordeal and contains a wealth of documents related to the tax case and Mr. Magnitsky's detention, all of which have been translated into English.

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