WASHINGTON -- А controversial film that examines the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the whistle-blowing Russian lawyer who died in prison after allegedly being tortured, is set to be screened at a Washington museum weeks after criticism forced European TV channels to postpone the film’s showing.
The planned private screening at the Newseum on June 13 is shaping up to be the latest skirmish in a pitched battle over the legacy of Magnitsky, whose death led to a U.S. law sanctioning a host of Russian officials that has infuriated the Kremlin.
The screening, which will feature a discussion moderated by renowned American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, comes amid an aggressive push by the Russian government and its allies to discredit the well-documented narrative of Magnitsky’s death, a narrative broadly accepted by Western officials and international rights groups.
Magnitsky was working for British-American financier William Browder in 2008 when he accused law enforcement and tax officials of involvement in a tax scam that used Browder’s investment company, Hermitage Capital, to defraud the Russian treasury out of an estimated $230 million.
Magnitsky was later arrested on fraud charges himself and was jailed in a notorious Moscow prison where his supporters allege he was beaten, denied medical care, and ultimately died in November 2009. His family and friends say he was targeted as retribution for blowing the whistle on the tax scam.
That led to Browder and allies to lobby the U.S. Congress to pass a 2012 law -- known as the Magnitsky Act -- that slapped visa bans and financial sanctions on Russia citizens allegedly involved in the fraud and Magnitsky's death, as well as other alleged rights violations.
A Russian presidential commission in 2011 concluded that Magnitsky’s detention and the decision by prison officials denying him access to health care amounted to torture. A report by the Council of Europe two years later further corroborated those conclusions.
The film to be shown at the Newseum, called The Magnitsky Act -- Behind the Scenes, was shot by Russian-born filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov and co-authored by a Norwegian company, Piraya Film.
It had been scheduled to premiere at the European Parliament on April 27, but that showing was canceled following complaints from Magnitsky's relatives and former colleagues, as well as objections from European lawmakers.
Another showing scheduled for early May on the ARTE European TV channel was also canceled after Browder sent ARTE a list of "factual errors" and warned them they would be legally accountable for knowingly broadcasting false statements.
The screening at the Newseum is itself a private event, according to a spokeswoman for the privately funded museum, who directed inquiries to the Potomac Square Group, a Washington-based lobbying and public relations company.
The company in turn deferred to Rinat Akhmetshin, who runs a Washington organization called the International Eurasian Institute.
Akhmetshin told RFE/RL the showing was private due to copyright issues and that invitees included congressional staffers, as well as representatives from the U.S. State Department, the White House’s National Security Council, and members of the media.
He also told RFE/RL the screening was being paid for by Nekrasov himself and that Hersh had agreed to host the discussion free of charge.
Hersh, whose storied career is peppered with journalistic blockbusters, confirmed he was moderating the event free of charge. He said he had seen the film a couple months ago when he agreed to host the discussion, but declined to talk more in depth about it, saying it was not his place.
“But the film is very interesting,” Hersh said. “It’s hard to walk out of that film without thinking that Browder should be getting more heat than he’s gotten so far.”
Nekrasov, who has produced several films highly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking further comments.
In an interview with RFE/RL in April, Nekrasov said he initially intended to do a film that told the story of how Magnitsky uncovered the tax fraud and was killed in order to silence him.
But he said his research later made him change his mind and that the film now 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.
Russia’s state-run media in recent months has broadcast and published reports attempting to discredit Browder and Magnitsky. Senior Russian officials and Kremlin allies, meanwhile, have reached out to U.S. lawmakers in efforts to persuade them that the foundations of the Magnitsky Act are faulty.
Nekrasov’s film has also caused controversy in Norway, where the production company Piraya Films is located.
Torstein Grude, a co-producer of the film, said it had been scheduled to be shown at a small regional festival on June 10, but was pulled from the schedule after organizers received legal threats from Browder’s lawyers in Norway.
Grude also said his company had filed a lawsuit against a rights groups known as the Norwegian Helsinki Group, which he said illegally obtained a copy of the film.
The Norwegian Helsinki Group, which has advocated for bringing those responsible for Magnitsky’s death to justice, said it received a link to the film from Browder. But Gunnar Ekelove-Slydal, the group’s deputy secretary-general, denied any laws had been broken.
“There is overwhelming documentation that Magnitsky was mistreated, tortured and that he died in pretrial detention,” Ekelove-Slydal told RFE/RL on June 8. “We never doubted that he was imprisoned by the same people he was reporting on, the people that were responsible for the enormous tax fraud.”
Browder, who confirmed he had shared the link to the film with the Norwegian group, said in a June 8 statement that “the lies presented” in Nekrasov’s film “are not new, and are based on the past narrative from the Russian authorities who covered up the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and the criminals who stole $230 million from the Russian people – the crime Magnitsky exposed.”
The struggle over the film’s showing comes as U.S. lawmakers debate legislation modeled after the Magnitsky Act that would target human rights abusers worldwide. A House committee recently passed legislation, though it’s unclear whether it will be taken up by the full House this year.
It also comes as the first legal proceedings in the United States regarding alleged proceeds of the original tax fraud inch their way through U.S. courts.
U.S. prosecutors are seeking to seize millions from a Russian man named Denis Katsyv, who they allege used a Cypriot-registered company and some of those funds to buy pricey real estate in Manhattan.
A trial in that case was scheduled to begin in January in Manhattan federal court, but lawyers for Browder have sought to have the defense counsel removed, since some of the defense lawyers did legal work for Browder around the time that the fraud in Russia was uncovered.
An appeals court was set to hear arguments on that conflict-of-interest issue on June 9.