Russian investigators have opened a criminal case over the death of a key witness in a tax evasion case against a London-based investment fund. Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer representing Hermitage Capital Management, died last week in a Russian jail from what authorities say was "heart failure." The Prosecutor-General's main investigative unit opened the case under clauses dealing with negligence and failure to give proper medical treatment.Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also has ordered a probe into the case. But reports suggest that documents about Magnitsky's treatment in prison are missing or have been destroyed. RFE/RL Russian service correspondent Irina Lagunina spoke about the case today with a co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management, William Browder.
RFE/RL: Do you trust Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, his quick reaction and his order to investigate the case of Sergei Magnitsky -- the 37-year-old lawyer representing Hermitage Capital Management who died last week in a Russian jail from what authorities say was "heart failure."
William Browder: What you have to understand about Russia is that many of the people who work in the law-enforcement bodies are not people who are enforcing the law, but are people who are actually involved in criminal activities -- which is why Magnitsky died in the first place.
There is going to be huge pressure, almost insurmountable pressure, within the law enforcement bodies to try to cover up what really happened. 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. 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. I have great reason to be worried about the investigation at the moment.
RFE/RL: What can you tell us about reports that Russian authorities have started to destroy evidence about the conditions under which Sergei Magnitsky was being detained?
Browder: Indeed, you can be sure that there is a huge swirl of activity right now of destroying evidence, taking away documents, putting pressure on people who were near Magnitsky, etc, to make sure that whatever the outcome of this investigation is, it is not going to look too bad for the people being investigated.
RFE/RL: We also have received your statement that on November 9 and 11, authorities presented Sergei Magnitsky with a set of documents accusing him of illegalities. He complained that those documents were absolutely fraudulent. Can you tell us more about this?
Browder: We have a copy of a complaint that Sergei Magnitsky filed in November in which he describes in great detail how the documents submitted for his detention hearing had been altered, fabricated, and tampered with. [Magnitsky alleged this was done by Investigator Oleg] Silchenko from the [investigative committee of the] Russian Interior Ministry. He went into great detail and documented how they had been tampered with, showing that different pages had been put in that hadn't been in previous packages of information, that the string binding the package together was a different string than the one that had been put on it before, and various other things.
Any objective observer looking at his testimony and the evidence would have confirmed that they had basically fabricated evidence in his trial and in his case.
RFE/RL: What was that evidence about?
Browder: Basically what they were doing was coming up with additional reasons to keep him detained in pretrial detention. Under any normal circumstances, he would have been released the first day after he had been incarcerated based on [the lack of] real evidence.
But these investigators were so keen on having him in jail - and essentially having a hostage and then trying to get their hostage to incriminate himself and incriminate me -- that they were willing to do almost anything: fabricating evidence, torturing him, putting him under worse and worse conditions, denying him medical attention to try to get him to falsely incriminate himself and me. And up until the day that he died, he refused to do it.
RFE/RL: The position of the Interior Ministry at the moment is an attack. There was a press conference in Moscow on November 25 where the investigation unit claimed that they had collected clear evidence that both you and Mr. Magnitsky were involved in a tax evasion scheme in Russia. They gave a clear figure of 522 million rubles that you did not pay to tax authorities. What is your response to this?
Browder: It is a completely fabricated case based on no real information. If this case had ever gone to court with Sergei, it would have collapsed under its own weight immediately because there is just no real evidence of tax evasion.
All taxes were paid. In fact, there was a criminal investigation into these tax payments in 2005 and the case had been closed for lack of a crime.
The reason why this case even exists in the first place is because Sergei and I discovered that the police who had raided our offices in June 2007 had used the documents that they raided from our offices. After we complained in December 2007 about these officers, the very same officers then traveled to [the Russian federation republic of] Kalmykia in 2008 and opened up this particular criminal case where there was no case to be answered for.
RFE/RL: When you look at the whole case of Sergei Magnitsky, what does all this say about the nature of a regime that was actually created by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- whom you originally supported?
Browder: We originally had this situation where the oligarchs were ruling Russia and I thought that was bad. I was very much in support of taming and crushing the oligarchs. And then what happened which was much worse than that is that law enforcement officers became the new oligarchs.
Instead of upholding the law, the law-enforcement officers are now the ones who are crushing the law and crushing people.
Sergei is a human victim where he paid the ultimate price of this new law enforcement oligarchy.
RFE/RL: What is the significance of Sergei Magnitsky's death in terms of its impact on Russia's young generation of hard-working businesspeople?
Browder: This situation with Magnitsky has touched a nerve because he truly is a part of this new generation of hard-working men [in Russia] who just thought he could do his job, work hard, believe in what's right and then everything would be OK. And he just paid the ultimate price for that.