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European TV Channel Puts Controversial Magnitsky Film On Hold

  • Rikard Jozwiak
  • Robert Coalson

Film direсtor Andrei Nekrasov

Film direсtor Andrei Nekrasov

BRUSSELS -- A European television channel will not air a controversial new documentary next week on Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who helped uncover a massive tax fraud case in Russia and later died in a Russian jail, as previously planned.

Claude-Anne Savin, a spokeswoman for ARTE European, said the Franco-German channel is reviewing the film in response to complaints about its accuracy to "make sure the film is clean."

Despite the cancellation of the May 3 airing of the film, titled The Magnitsky Act -- Behind The Scenes, Savin said the channel still might air it "in a few weeks."

ARTE pulled the promotional tease for the film from its website.

Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky

Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky

The film, which was shot by Russian documentary filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov, was scheduled to premiere at the European Parliament on April 27. That showing was canceled following complaints from Magnitsky's relatives and former colleagues. German parliamentarian Marieluise Beck also complained that footage of her staff was used without permission.

Magnitsky blew the whistle on a $230 million tax-fraud scheme and died in 2009 while being held on fraud charges in a Moscow pretrial detention facility. His family and friends say that, prior to his death, he was beaten, tortured, and denied medical care.

William Browder, a U.S.-born British investor who employed Magnitsky and has led the international campaign to hold Moscow accountable for his death, says he sent ARTE a list of "factual errors" in the film and warned them they would be legally accountable for knowingly broadcasting false statements.

"It is one thing to have free speech, but it is another thing to try to manipulate and to use lies, innuendo, and fabrications to make a point which isn't true," Browder told RFE/RL. "That's why there are libel laws out there to protect people from this type of thing."

William Browder

William Browder

"The movie is just a collection of lies and fabrications, which desecrates the memory of Sergei Magnitsky and changes the whole story of how he died," Browder added.

Browder’s campaign on behalf of Magnitsky resulted in the U.S. Congress passing a law in 2012 sanctioning several Russian officials for their alleged involvement in the lawyer’s death. The law deeply angered Moscow.

'Changing' His Mind

Nekrasov has produced several films highly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was a friend of former Russian Federal Security Service officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was killed by a radioactive substance in London in 2006. His 2007 documentary about that case premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was shown in Moscow at the Sakharov Center human rights organization.

His 2010 film, Russian Lessons, about the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, exposed falsifications and manipulations undertaken by Russian state television in covering events before, during, and after that conflict.

WATCH: A clip from Russian Lessons:

But his Magnitsky film is decidedly different. Nekrasov wrote an April 27 blog post that the film changed his "consciousness…and, probably, my life."

The film asserts that Magnitsky was not beaten while in police custody and that he did not make any specific allegations against individuals in his testimony to Russian authorities, Nekrasov writes.

In an interview with RFE/RL on April 27, Nekrasov said he began the film with the intention of telling the story of how Magnitsky uncovered the tax fraud and was killed in order to silence him.

This sequence of events has been thoroughly documented by Browder and others -- including, in part, by the Kremlin's own human rights council.

Nekrasov, however, says that making the film changed his mind.

"I didn't abandon that narrative easily because I was ideologically very close to Browder," he said. "I was also a regime critic, honestly, on a lot of counts. But if we are not telling the truth, then it makes it easier for the bad guys to carry on doing their bad things."

The aborted April 27 screening at the European Parliament was organized by Finnish lawmaker Heidi Hautala, a member of the Green Party. Rebecca Harms, president of the Greens at the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter that the planned screening was "not an event of the Greens" group in the legislative chamber.

Hautala, like Nekrasov, has a long record of defending human rights and of criticizing Russia. She was a sponsor of the original 2010 European Parliament resolution calling for EU member states to impose sanctions against Russian officials involved in the Magnitsky case, similar to the U.S. sanctions.

According to Finnish media, she has also been romantically linked to Nekrasov. She told the EU Observer website on April 27 that "we are close friends; I've known him [for] many years."

"It is very important to verify the facts and listen to different parties," she said in an interview with RFE/RL. "I'm very interested to see what the consequences of the film of Andrei Nekrasov will be when they will be openly discussed, openly available, when one day there will be no harassment against the screening of this film."

Another organizer of the canceled Brussels premiere was Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya. She is a defense lawyer for Russian businessman Denis Katsyv, who is the target of a U.S. federal civil forfeiture case in New York concerning alleged money laundering linked to the Magnitsky case.

In November, a U.S. federal prosecutor submitted a letter to the judge in the case saying that Veselnitskaya, Katsyv, and others involved in the action racked up more than $50,000 in expenses on the U.S. government’s dime during a four-day deposition in New York.

The costs included a two-night stay at the Plaza Hotel "in a $995/night room for Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was not deposed and did not even attend the depositions in person, for the weekend after the depositions had concluded," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara wrote in the letter.

"Ms. Veselnitskaya appears to have stayed at a less expensive hotel during the depositions, but moved to the Plaza after the depositions concluded and only after the Court orally stated that the Government would be responsible for reimbursing Defendants' expenses," Bharara added.

'Weaken Western Confidence'

German lawmaker Elmar Brok, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament, told RFE/RL the effort to show the film at the parliament was "a wrong idea."

"This is a piece of propaganda that should not be part of our parliamentary work," he said.

He added that he is "looking into" the matter of whether ARTE should have been involved in the project. The channel relies on "financial support from the European Union," according to the channel's website, with the goal to "produce television programs which…are…conducive to promoting understanding and cooperation between Europe's nations."

Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament who also serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL that the push to screen the film for the chamber was one of several moves "by the Russian authorities" in order "to weaken Western confidence in its policy line" and secure a review of EU sanctions against Russia later this year.

"And I expect more and more actions like this in the months to come," Austrevicius added. "And probably in a very creative way."

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak covers the European Union and NATO for RFE/RL from his base in Brussels.​ Write to him at rikard.jozwiak@gmail.com


     

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