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UN Looking Into Case Of Russian Lawyer's Prison Death

  • Richard Solash

Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was 37 when he died in pretrial detention.

Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was 37 when he died in pretrial detention.

The United Nations has appointed a team of independent experts to gather information on the 2009 death of Russian anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky under what have been described as torturous conditions in a Moscow jail.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed "engagement by the special procedures mechanisms with the Russian Federation in relation to the case of Mr. Sergei Magnitsky, in accordance with the normal diplomatic channels."

The UN said independent experts in cases like this were provided with personnel, research, and logistical support to "address specific country situations."

Magnitsky was representing the investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital Management when he uncovered evidence implicating top officials from Russia's Interior Ministry, Federal Tax Service, Federal Security Service, and other agencies in a $230 million scheme to defraud the government.

After he went public with the findings, Interior Ministry officials Pavel Karpov and Artyom Kuznetsov, whom Magnitsky had accused of taking part in the scheme, soon initiated proceedings against him on charges of assisting Hermitage Capital in evading taxes.

Friends and relatives pay their last respects to Magnitsky at a Moscow cemetery on November 20, 2009.
The 37-year-old lawyer was repeatedly denied medical care during nearly a year in pretrial detention.

No Charges In Russia

Since Magnitsky's death, the case has garnered international attention as a symbol of Russia's human rights failings and pervasive corruption in the country's government and law enforcement institutions. Despite pledges by Russian officials to conduct a thorough investigation, no charges have been brought to date.

The Russian Interior Ministry denied that an official investigation has been launched but acknowledged that on January 14 it received a request signed by the UN special rapporteurs for "information on the investigation of cases of alleged human rights violations, including the death of S. Magnitsky."

William Browder, Hermitage Capital's CEO, has spent much of the 14 months since Magnitsky's death testifying at government human rights commissions in Europe and North America.

"The fact that the UN is investigating is extremely important because the Russians keep on saying that the torture of Sergei Magnitsky is an internal affair of the Russian Federation," he said. "The fact that the UN is investigating suggests that it's an affair that touches the entire world, or all member states of the United Nations."

Allegations Of Prison Torture

The UN took up the case after receiving a 100-page petition by REDRESS, a U.K.-based advocacy organization that seeks justice for torture victims.

Juergen Schurr, one of the organization's legal advisers, said that much of the evidence presented in the documents sent to the UN were publicly available.

Magnitsky documented his plight through extensive letter-writing in prison, in which he detailed numerous unfulfilled requests for medical attention due to pancreatic problems.

Evidence was also available from human rights groups, lawyers, and a report by the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, an independent group charged with monitoring human rights in Russian jails, which concluded that Magnitsky had been tortured in an effort to get him to withdraw his testimony.

The spokeswoman for the Russian Interior Ministry Investigative Committee, Irina Dudukina, told reporters in November, 2010, that Magnitsky had committed fraud, not government officials.
"Russia is under an obligation to refrain from torture [and] inhuman and degrading treatment," Shurr said. "There is further an obligation to investigate and, as appropriate, to prosecute allegations of torture and those responsible for torture and inhuman and degrading treatment."

He added, "We see that Russia has, more than one year after Magnitsky's death in pretrial detention, not fulfilled the commitments it engaged in by ratifying the convention on human rights and the [UN] Convention Against Torture."

Pressuring Russia

While Schurr concedes that a UN investigation may not result in full accountability for those behind Magnitsky's death, he points to its possible value in fomenting change in Moscow.

"The UN has to engage Russia in a dialogue on this," he said. "I am, of course, aware of the skepticism as to the effectiveness of this process, but it certainly puts additional pressure on Russia to start complying with its international obligations."

Hermitage's Browder also hopes the future will bring at least a measure of justice for Magnitsky, even if it comes through non-Russian channels.

His efforts to bring Magnitsky's case into the public focus helped lead to an official recommendation in December by the European Parliament that member states impose a visa ban and freeze the financial assets of some 60 individuals associated with Magnitsky's death.

If any country in the Schengen zone implements the visa ban, the individuals will be automatically prohibited from all Schengen countries.

Browder says he is working with parliamentarians from five countries on implementation and says there will be "interesting announcements in the coming weeks."

Browder also says he has received assurances from U.S. congressmen that the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, which calls for similar restrictions in the United States, will be introduced for a vote by lawmakers soon.

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