Slain Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov has been posthumously honored with a new human rights award named for Sergei Magnitsky, the whistleblowing Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow jail in 2009 after accusing officials in large-scale fraud.
Nemtsov, a critic of President Vladimir Putin who was gunned down near the Kremlin in February, was among several activists, journalists, and politicians honored at a November 16 ceremony in London as winners of the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards.
His special award in the category of “Campaigning for Democracy” was presented by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Russian oil company Yukos who served more than 10 years in jail on financial-crimes convictions that he says were politically motivated.
“Boris Nemtsov fought his entire life for a democratic future for Russia, and he, too, died in this struggle,” Khodorkovsky, who fled to Switzerland after he was pardoned by Putin in December 2013, said in a short speech.
“Russia will be a democratic country. But for that to happen, there always have to be people who, despite the risks, will continue this fight,” Khodorkovsky said.
The ceremony was held on the sixth anniversary of Magnitsky’s death, which occurred during his incarceration at Moscow's Butyrskaya detention center, where he was being held on charges of tax fraud.
Magnitsky's friends and family say he was incarcerated, tortured, and denied medical treatment that could have saved his life as retribution for accusing law enforcement and tax officials of stealing $230 million from Russian coffers. Magnitsky had worked for Hermitage Capital, an investment firm headed by Britain-based businessman William Browder, who launched a global campaign for sanctions against Russian officials implicated in the lawyer’s death.
Browder’s lobbying push helped lead to a 2012 U.S. law punishing Russian citizens deemed by Washington to be complict in Magnitsky’s death and other alleged human rights abuses. So far, at least 34 Russian nationals have been hit with financial sanctions and U.S. visa bans under the law, widely referred to as the Magnitsky Act.
The law -- which allows for a second, classified list of sanctioned individuals -- has enraged Moscow, which responded with its own blacklist targeting American officials it accuses of rights abuses.
Putin has publicly called Magnitsky’s death a “tragedy” but said it was not the result of criminal actions.
In 2013, a Russian court posthumously convicted Magnitsky on tax fraud charges in a case denounced by rights groups and Western governments.
The new human rights awards in Magnitsky’s name were launched this year by the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky campaign, which is led by Browder.
Browder initially supported the 2003 arrest of Khodorkovsky, a ruthless businessman who became Russia's richest man through his Yukos empire, as a sign that Putin was tackling oligarchs' control of the country. Two years later, Browder was barred from entering Russia, and he now regrets his earlier position on Khodorkovsky, saying he failed to understand the direction Putin's government was moving in at the time.
Nine awards were presented in a range of categories, including for media coverage of the Magnitsky case, campaigning by European Union and U.S. politicians, and campaigning for sanctions related to Magnitsky’s death and other rights abuses to be enacted throughout the world.
Recipients included U.S. Representative Jim McGovern in the category of campaigning by a U.S. politician, as well as former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, currently a member of the European Parliament, for campaigning by an EU politician.
McGovern was a co-sponsor of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, and earlier this year he introduced a bill modeled after that legislation that would target human rights abusers worldwide with similar sanctions.
Accepting his award, McGovern called on the EU to “walk the walk” when it comes to human rights and to adopt its own Magnitsky Act.
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister under Putin who is now an opposition politician, presented the award to Verhofstadt. Kasyanov co-founded an opposition party with Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under former President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.
Nemtsov was assassinated on Moscow’s Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge near the Kremlin on February 27. He was shot dead hours after appealing to the public to support a march against Russia’s war in Ukraine.
A lawyer for Nemtsov’s family said on November 9 that investigators have charged a member of Chechnya’s security forces in connection with the murder. Five other suspects from Russia's North Caucasus who have been implicated in the case remain in custody under court order.
Nemtsov’s assassination was met by widespread international condemnation and has raised concerns about the situation for Russia’s opposition.
Khodorkovsky presented the award to Nemtsov’s daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, who moved to Germany after her father’s murder. She has said that received threats in Russia as she pressed for further investigations.
Nemtsova said that her father made a “specific contribution” to the U.S. Magnitsky Act by lobbying American lawmakers to pass the legislation. She said Nemtsov was “very proud” when U.S. President Barack Obama signed it into law in December 2012.