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Prison Official Allows For State Role In Russian Lawyer's Death

Acquaintances and supporters at Sergei Magnitsky's funeral in Moscow on November 20

Acquaintances and supporters at Sergei Magnitsky's funeral in Moscow on November 20

A Russian prison official has conceded that the country's Federal Penitentiary Service shares some responsibility for the death this month of an outspoken lawyer in its custody, RFE/RL's Russian Service reports.

The death in jail of 37-year-old Sergei Magnitsky has outraged rights activists in a country where numerous high-profile killings have gone unpunished.

Outcry has prompted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who campaigned in 2008 on pledges to improve a deteriorating rights record, to order a special investigation into the case.

Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) Deputy Director Aleksandr Smirnov conceded in statements today to a Kremlin advisory board that it was a "deplorable incident" and suggested that harsh prison conditions were partly to blame for Magnitsky's death in Butyrka prison on November 16.

Smirnov further told the Civil Chamber, a body of experts that advise the Kremlin, that the results of an investigation into the quality of federal prisons will soon be made public.

President Medvedev ordered officials to check the quality of medical services in the country's penitentiaries and detention centers in addition to investigating Magnitsky's case.

Kremlin Gadfly

Magnitsky, a lawyer for the London-based hedge fund Hermitage Capital, died in prison after allegedly being denied medical care.

He was awaiting trial on tax-evasion charges that he and others insisted were politically motivated.

Ella Pamfilova, the chairwoman of the Russian president's Council for Promoting Civil and Human Rights, called Magnitsky's death a "murder and a tragedy."

Medvedev has asked the Prosecutor-General's Office and Justice Ministry to help investigate Magnitsky's death.

William Browder, a co-founder of the Hermitage fund that retained Magnitsky, warned in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service today that he had "great reason to be worried about the investigation at the moment."

Browder challenged authorities' ability to ensure a thorough and transparent probe into the circumstances around Magnitsky's death.

"There is going to be huge pressure, almost insurmountable pressure, within the law-enforcement bodies to try to cover up what really happened," Browder said.

"This is not a question of trusting the president -- I think the president's reaction to it was an appropriate reaction -- but it is [about] trusting the process," Browder added. "And the only way this process can work in any reasonable way is that it is transparent -- so the outside world can see the information that is being analyzed to understand what really happened."

Long-Running Feud

Hermitage Capital, once Russia's biggest private investment funds, has waged a lengthy battle with the Kremlin.

Some observers regard their long-running disputes as evidence of unhealthy ties between business, law enforcement, and organized crime in Russia.

A U.S. national, Browder was barred from visiting Russia on unspecified national security grounds in 2005 following a spate of acquisitions of large stakes in strategic companies.

After a June 2007 raid on Hermitage's offices, lawfirm Firestone Duncan was retained and Magnitsky assigned the case.

Magnitsky subsequently claimed to have uncovered efforts by organized crime to acquire Hermitage's ownership stakes and testified against police officers.

One of those officers, Artyom Kuznetsov, was a key investigator in the case that eventually put Magnitsky in custody in November 2008.

written by Andy Heil and Komila Nabiyeva in Prague from reports by RFE/RL's Russian Service