From the gulags to the “doctor’s plot,” Russian history is replete with politically orchestrated show trials. But an upcoming case may achieve the unlikely feat of raising the bar for legal and political corruption. That is because the defendant in the case, attorney Sergei Magnitsky, has been dead for two years. What’s more, his trial is being sought by the very government and police officials who may have been complicit in his death.
Earlier this month, officials with the Russian Interior Ministry announced their plan to resubmit a tax evasion case that would see Magnitsky go on trial posthumously. Magnitsky first incurred these officials’ ire in 2007, when he was an attorney with of the Moscow-based American law firm Firestone Duncan and an outside counsel for the investment fund Hermitage Capital. In June 2007, police from the ministry raided both Firestone Duncan and Hermitage Capital’s Moscow offices on the pretext of tax evasion charges. In the course of the raid, they took away the official documents and seals of the fund’s Russian investment companies – despite the fact these documents were outside the scope of their search warrant.
Within months, Hermitage learned of an arbitration judgment against one of its companies, even though it had no prior indication of any legal proceedings. Asked by Hermitage to investigate, Magnitsky discovered that the fund’s Russian companies had been sued by shell companies with which they had never done business. Forged and backdated contracts had been used to establish a business relationship that never existed. As well, the companies had been represented by lawyers the fund never hired and who admitted to liabilities spelled out in the forged contracts. As if this wasn’t scandalous enough, Magnitsky concluded that the signatures and seals used to forge the contracts could only have come from the documents taken by the interior ministry during the June 2007 raid. Magnitsky ultimately testified that officials with the Russian Interior Ministry had used had used Hermitage’s Russian companies to embezzle some $230 million from the Russian treasury by filing fraudulent corporate tax returns. It was government corruption on a spectacular scale.
Maginitsky’s disclosures triggered an immediate and eventually fatal retaliation from the interior ministry. In 2008, Magnitsky was detained by police on charges of helping Hermitage to evade $17.4 million in taxes. Never formally charged with a crime, he was imprisoned without trial. In less than a year, he was dead.
How Magnitsky died remains a source of much controversy — and a likely government cover-up. Officially, the cause of death was heart failure. But everyone from his surviving family to his employers to human-rights groups believes that his death was the result of deliberate mistreatment on the part of Russian authorities.
Bill Browder, Hermitage’s founder, has powerfully assembled evidence to this effect. In a 75-page, meticulously detailed report released this November — the two-year anniversary of Magnitsky’s death — Browder shows that Magnitsky was not only denied medical care for a rapidly worsening medical condition, pancreatitis, but he was subjected to brutal beatings and inhumane prison conditions that caused his formerly perfect health to deteriorate. Browder’s report notes that Magnitsky made over 20 requests for medical care, each of which was refused, and the very existence of which was later denied by Russian prison officials. Forced to survive on a horrendous diet that in Magnitsky’s own words included “porridge with insect larvae” and “rotten boiled herring,” he was beaten with rubber batons and had bruises on his hands and knees. The combination of refused medical treatment and physical punishment ultimately led to Magnitsky’s death, at 37, on a prison floor. He died mere days before the one-year limit on detention without trial was set to expire.
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