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Navalny's Prison Ordeal Revives Grim Memories Of Magnitsky's Death In 2009

Natalia Magnitskaya (left), mother of Sergei Magnitsky, grieves over her son's body during his funeral at a cemetery in Moscow in November 2009.
Natalia Magnitskaya (left), mother of Sergei Magnitsky, grieves over her son's body during his funeral at a cemetery in Moscow in November 2009.

"Did they want to kill him?" wondered Jamison Firestone in a November 2009 interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I don't know."

Firestone was the managing partner of Firestone Duncan, a Moscow law firm that hired Sergei Magnitsky to look into suspicions of massive tax fraud and theft in the takeover of companies belonging to the investment firm Hermitage Capital Management. Magnitsky died after 358 days in a Moscow pretrial-remand prison on November 16, 2009. He had not been charged with any crime.

"Magnitsky showed that a group of Interior Ministry officers were guilty of embezzling from the state budget the sum of $230 million," Firestone said. "And these officers were among the group that arrested him. They did this in order to silence him. After his arrest, they had to justify their actions and create some accusations. It took them 10 months to fabricate their nonsensical story," he said. "Clearly, the investigators were trying to force him to confess to things that were not true."

'A Deliberate Strategy'

Magnitsky, who was 37, had repeatedly said he was being denied medical treatment, and rights activists said his mistreatment amounted to torture.

More than a decade later, supporters of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny are issuing increasingly alarming warnings that Navalny's health has deteriorated in the weeks since his arrest upon returning to Russia from Germany in January and particularly since he was moved to a prison in the Vladimir region earlier this month.

Navalny lawyer Vadim Kobzev accused the authorities of "a deliberate undermine his health," while Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, said her husband's treatment was "personal revenge" for his political activity.

Navalny had been in Germany since August 2020, when he was flown there for treatment following a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok-type nerve agent on a trip to Siberia. He has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for the incident, which open-source investigators have argued was carried out by a team of Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives. In December, Navalny claimed he had duped one of the alleged FSB operatives, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, into confessing to participating in the poisoning during a 49-minute telephone conversation in which Navalny posed as a Kremlin official.

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Navalny has complained of severe back pain and a loss of sensation in his right leg that has made it "practically nonfunctional." He did not appear for a scheduled meeting with his lawyers on March 24. The following day, Russian prison officials issued a terse statement saying that Navalny's health was "stable" and "satisfactory."

After being allowed to see him, his lawyers disputed that claim, with one saying his condition was "extremely unfavorable."

In two recent letters to the authorities that were made public on March 25, Navalny charged that his jailers were torturing him through sleep deprivation and withholding medical treatment in a deliberate effort to harm his health.

"This is exact deja-vu from the Magnitsky case," wrote Hermitage Capital CEO and head of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Bill Browder in a post on Twitter on March 25. "The medical neglect that Putin is inflicting on Alexei Navalny is deliberate and Putin wants the world to know he's doing it."

'A Torture Chamber'

Speaking to RFE/RL in 2009, just a month before Magnitsky's death, Browder noted the prisoner's deteriorating health. "He has been in custody for 11 months now," he said. "He has not been granted one single visit with his family. He has lost 18 kilograms."

"Sergei Magnitsky was held in the pretrial jail under inhuman conditions," Firestone said in the interview conducted shortly after Magnitsky's death. "He had serious health problems, including a serious digestive illness. The prison knew perfectly well about this because at first they gave him medical help. Later the authorities began pressuring him to force him to give false testimony. So they stopped giving him medical treatment. They took away his medications. They refused to allow him to consult with his doctor. Magnitsky complained about this many times. During this time, he lost more than 20 kilograms."

Magnitsky filed many complaints about his treatment, Firestone added. "Just the list of his complaints about this takes up four pages," he said.

Although Magnitsky was transferred to Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina jail on the day of his death, he spent most of his imprisonment in the notorious Cell Block No. 2 of the Butyrka remand prison. Roman Popkov was an activist with the illegal radical leftist National Bolshevik movement who spent two years in the same building at Butyrka and was released the year before Magnitsky's death.

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"As I read his diaries, I understood that nothing has changed in the last year," he told RFE/RL in December 2009. "I could see this cell block remained a torture chamber."

"They throw people in there with a single aim -- to convince them deep down of their complete helplessness in the face of the system," Popkov added. "The police investigations unit sends them to Butyrka and the Butyrka administration sends them into those basements so that they will be more agreeable with the investigators and the court."

According to The New York Times, at 11 a.m. on November 16, Butyrka prison doctor Larisa Litvinova ordered Magnitsky's transfer to Matrosskaya Tishina because his health situation had become urgent. After six hours, an ambulance arrived for him. He arrived at 6:30 p.m. A doctor prescribed him a painkiller, ordered a psychiatric evaluation, and left. Staff found him unconscious on his cell floor at 9:20 p.m. and he was pronounced dead half an hour later.

The official cause of death was given as toxic shock and heart failure brought on by pancreatitis.

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In an open letter to the Russian government in March 2010, human rights activist and then-head of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alekseyeva wrote that Magnitsky's death "resulted from willfully cruel treatment."

"Torture was used by officers of the Interior Ministry as a method to pressure Mr. Sergei Magnitsky in the course of the investigation of a criminal case," Alekseyeva wrote. "Mr. Sergei Magnitsky died from torture that was willfully inflicted on him."

An initial investigation by the Kremlin's advisory Human Rights Council concluded that Magnitsky had been severely beaten and denied treatment.

Hitting Rights Abusers 'Where It Hurts Most'

After years of international campaigning by Browder and others, the United States in 2012 passed the original Magnitsky Act that allowed Washington to impose targeted sanctions on individuals in Russia accused of human rights violations. In 2015, the United States adopted the Global Magnitsky Act that extended the same penalties to alleged rights abusers in other countries.

The anti-corruption NGO Global Witness has called the U.S. Magnitsky laws "an important tool" in the fight against abuses. "It's a successful example of concrete action being taken against the corrupt and the worst human rights abusers, hitting them where it hurts most -- in their pocket," Global Witness wrote in December 2019.

Over the next few years, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and others adopted similar legislation. The EU's European Magnitsky Act was adopted in December 2020.

Taken together, the laws "fundamentally changed the role of targeted financial measures in the global fight against human rights abuses and corruption," Atlantic Council senior fellow Hagar Hajjar Chemali wrote after the EU adopted the measure.

"The EU has said it would impose its first round of sanctions under this law at the beginning of 2021 and it is expected that Russian targets involved not only in the death of Sergei Magnitsky but also those tied to the recent attempted murder of key Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny will be included," Chemali wrote. "Navalny has encouraged the EU to target Russian oligarchs and those close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in particular because of the assets and estates they have in Europe."

On March 24, Browder posted on Twitter: "Alexei Navalny says health has sharply deteriorated in jail. This is how the hell that Putin has in store for him begins. I've seen it before with Sergei Magnitsky and its horrific. We must be ready to sanction a lot more Putin regime people."

After the United Kingdom imposed Magnitsky Act sanctions on 25 Russians and 20 Saudis allegedly involved in laundering "blood money" in July 2020, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab lauded the new diplomatic tool.

"I think it's absolutely right, particularly as a tool of foreign policy, that we subject the individuals responsible for...abuses -- whether it's torture, extrajudicial killing, or whatever it may be -- to asset freezes and visa bans," Raab told Reuters at the time. "I think it's right as a statement of our international posture to say that we don't want people responsible for these appalling crimes, with blood on their hands, coming to this country, doing their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge or the King's Road or trying to invest in British banks or British property."

On March 26, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed most of the parallels between the Magnitsky case and Navalny's. He noted, however, that Magnitsky was posthumously convicted of large-scale tax evasion in July 2013, in what observers believe was the first-ever posthumous trial in Russia's modern history.

"We don't see any parallels," Peskov said, "apart from the fact that unfortunately, the deceased Magnitsky was convicted and sentenced. Navalny is also convicted and sentenced."

Navalny has been convicted at two trials on financial-crimes charges that he and supporters contend were fabricated to blunt his challenge to Putin. They also contend that the parole-violation claim that resulted in his current prison term is absurd and unfounded.

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