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Russian Presidential Commission Faults Police Over Lawyer's Death

  • RFE/RL

Sergei Magnitsky pictured in Moscow in 2006

Sergei Magnitsky pictured in Moscow in 2006

MOSCOW -- Russian authorities illegally jailed an anticorruption lawyer and deprived him of medical care, leading to his death, according to an independent commission appointed by President Dmitry Medvedev to look into the high-profile case.

According to the probe, conducted at the request of the presidential Human Rights Council, the tax evasion charges against Sergei Magnitsky that resulted in his arrest were baseless.

"The charges against Magnitsky were fabricated by the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service officials," the Russian business daily "Vedomosti" cited the preliminary findings as saying in an article published April 26.

Veteran human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a member of the presidential rights council, said the probe would be completed in the near future, possibly as soon as May.

"Several people are working on it and they all have other duties, so there is no precise date for when it will be ready," she said. "But they agreed to hurry and complete it quickly."

Friends and relatives pay their last respects to Magnitsky at a Moscow cemetary in November 2009.

Magnitsky, who worked for Hermitage Capital, formerly Russia's biggest equity fund, was detained in 2008 after accusing Interior Ministry officials of receiving an illegal $230 million tax refund.

The 37-year-old lawyer died of heart failure after 11 months in custody in a case that sparked international outrage and prompted Western politicians -- including U.S. congressmen -- to threaten sanctions against the officials believed to be implicated in his death.

The official investigation is still under way and no one so far has been charged in his death. The Interior Ministry accuses Magnitsky and Hermitage of masterminding the $230 million tax fraud.

Magnitsky's supporters have long accused police officers involved in the scheme of denying the jailed lawyer life-saving medical care to silence him.

The independent inquiry backed these accusations, noting that Oleg Silchenko, the Interior Ministry investigator in the case, bore "serious responsibility" for Magnitsky's death.

Valery Borshchyov, the head of the presidential commission, told journalists that Silchenko repeatedly denied the lawyer ultrasound screening necessary for an operation. Silchenko also led the Interior Ministry's investigation into Magnitsky's death.

Borshchyov added that Aleksandra Gauss, a doctor at the detention center to which Magnitsky was moved shortly before dying, had also denied him medical help.

The federal prison service has admitted it was partly responsible for the lawyer's death.

William Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital, welcomed the commission's initial findings. But he also raised doubts about the Kremlin's willingness to punish those who let Magnitsky die.

Medvedev's spokesperson has declined to comment on possible steps the president could take in response to the commission's findings.

written by Claire Bigg, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service

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