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One Year Later, Magnitsky’s Death Overshadows Case He Sought To Prosecute

WATCH: The Magnitsky case provoked a public outcry, and prompted the prison system to begin improving its treatment of prisoners. But some say the changes are superficial at best.

WASHINGTON -- "I don't understand why this happened to him," says Natalia Magnitskaya, the mother of Moscow attorney Sergei Magnitsky. "I never thought that something like this could have happened to him.”

Magnitskaya is one of the many family members, friends, and coworkers featured in a new documentary that celebrates Magnitsky’s life and questions the circumstances of his death, on November 16, 2009.

In 2008, Magnitsky implicated top Russian officials in what he said was a massive fraud scheme. The authorities responded by arresting him. One year after his agonizing death in custody, his own case has overshadowed the one he sought to prosecute. Magnitsky’s supporters around the world are marking the day with renewed vows to continue their fight for justice.

The world premiere of “Justice For Sergei,” which was produced by a team of Dutch filmmakers, will be screened today for elected officials in the U.S. Congress in Washington and the British parliament in London. Showings are also set for the European Parliament and in the legislatures of Canada, Estonia, and Germany.

The film's co-producer, Hans Hermans, said the film was funded in part by contributions from Hermitage Capital, the investment advisory firm that Magnitsky represented, and other supporters, but the majority of money was raised by the filmmakers themselves.

The host of the American screening tonight at the U.S. Capitol is Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. President Barack Obama's top adviser for Russian affairs, Michael McFaul, will be at the screening, as will Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Friends and relatives pay their last respects to Magnitsky at Preobrazhenskoye Cemetery in Moscow on November 20, 2009.
Cardin is a leading voice in what has become an international call for justice in the lawyer’s death. He has vowed to keep the pressure on Moscow to bring those responsible to justice.

"I think the Russian authorities understand that we're going to continue to raise this issue until there is a full investigation and those who are responsible are held accountable," Cardin says. "Russia has certain responsibilities. They're a [signatory] to the Helsinki Accords and their actions are out of compliance.

"So we're going to continue to raise the issue, and I believe that we are going to see that this will have an impact on the decision-making in Russia as it relates to human rights issues."

Denied Medical Attention

Magnitsky was a 37-year-old lawyer in 2008 when he implicated 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.

Interior Ministry officials Pavel Karpov and Artyom Kuznetsov, whom Magnitsky had accused of taking part in the scheme, soon initiated proceedings against the lawyer on charges of assisting his client -- Hermitage Capital, which was involved in a dispute with the Russian government -- in evading taxes. Magnitsky was arrested.

After being repeatedly denied medical attention for pancreatic problems and enduring what human rights activists have described as torturous conditions in custody for nearly a year, Magnitsky died on November 16, 2009. Supporters say his pleas for treatment were ignored in an attempt to get him to withdraw his prosecution in the fraud case.

In response to the international outcry that followed, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a probe, sacked 20 prison officials, and pledged to reform the penal system. One year later, no charges have been brought.

William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital, says he became “consumed” with the pursuit of justice as soon as he learned of Magnitsky’s death and has spent much of the last year testifying at parliamentary human rights commissions in both the United States and Europe. He will present the screening of “Justice For Sergei” in the British parliament today.

Browder told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that feelings about the case inside and outside Russia couldn’t be more different.

"There have been two very contradictory revelations. In Russia, what we've seen is that there has been a complete and absolute cover-up effort to make sure that the people who caused Sergei Magnitsky's death aren't brought to justice," Browder says. "And outside of Russia, what we've seen is that there has been an extremely robust response by the international community to put in place a number of different things like visa bans, financial sanctions, and other types of punishments, because there is no justice that we're finding in Russia."

'Broad Support'

Sergei Magnitsky in 2006
Browder won a victory for his cause in late September when Cardin, along with U.S. Representative James McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts who heads Congress's Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, introduced the Justice For Sergei Magnitsky Act Of 2010 in Congress. The proposed law would block U.S. visas and freeze the financial assets of dozens of people the congressmen say had a hand in Magnitsky’s death.

Cardin said the legislation has "broad support" and could come up for vote in the next few months. He described Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Clinton as "outraged" by Magnitsky’s death.

Browder said he wants other parliaments to follow Congress’s lead and has pressed for similar legislation in Canada and Britain. He told RFE/RL he is also working with the human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament and that “a resolution [there] may be prepared imminently.”

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has also said that if international institutions establish a list of people involved in Magnitsky's death, Poland would consider visa sanctions -- in effect, closing the entire Schengen Zone to the blacklisted officials.

On November 15, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek called the case “a shocking example showing that people fighting against corruption in Russia can feel neither safe nor protected.”

And the international corruption watchdog group Transparency International posthumously awarded Magnitsky its Integrity Award, saying his "commitment to integrity ultimately cost him his life."

Unmistakable Message

Meanwhile in Moscow, defiant officials restated their case against the dead lawyer.

"In this case, Magnitsky was an accountant and took part in developing schemes for tax evasion," says Russian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Irina Dudukina, citing what she said was new testimony.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Irina Dudukina restated the case against Magnitsky to reporters on November 15.
"That's why it is impossible in this case to maintain that he was just carrying out orders from his employers without realizing the final goal of his activities. He was fully informed of what they were trying to achieve."

Days earlier, Moscow sent another unmistakable message to Magnitsky's supporters when the Interior Ministry issued decorations to several officials associated with the fraud case he was working on at the time of his arrest.

Pavel Karpov, one of the first men identified by Magnitsky as profiting from the illegal scheme, was named “best investigator.” Oleg Silchenko, who led the criminal investigation against Magnitsky, was similarly honored.

Browder says that after a year of trying to convince the Russian government to fully investigate those in its own ranks, the awards epitomizes the enormity of the challenge.

“It’s quite amazing that the cynicism would reach such a level that the Interior Ministry would specially pick out the people who played a role, and a key role, in what happened to Sergei Magnitsky and give them an honor," Browder says. "And that sums it all up in one fell swoop.”

Irina Lagunina of RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report

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