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December 29, 2009
Russian lawyer’s death in prison sparks moral outrage

Russian vigil. Photo credit flickr user squigglycircle

Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in Moscow’s Butyrka prison on November 16, after being held for 11 months on charges of tax-evasion tied to his work with the London-based investment fund Hermitage Capital Management. (The Fund’s President William Browder was blacklisted from Russia in 2005 and the firm’s Moscow office subject to “corporate raiding.” You can read more about the case here.)

Magnitsky’s numerous appeals for medical care had gone unanswered, and the 37-year-old died from pancreatitis he developed while in custody.

The case received widespread attention, internationally, with Gordon Brown calling for an investigation, and also inside Russia. This past Monday, the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, an independent NGO mandated to monitor human rights in Moscow detention facilities, issued a 20-page report on Magnitsky’s case. Among the report’s findings: the lawyer was held at times in “tortuous conditions” and was subject to “physical and psychological pressure.”

The report also accuses Interior Ministry officials, prison staff and the legal community of negligence. You can find a summary of the report’s conclusions in English here.

The official reaction to the case: President Medvedev earlier this month fired some 20 senior corrections officials. Today he removed the deputy director general of the Federal Penitentiary Service, Aleksandr Piskunov, and signed a bill that bans the jailing of  people suspected of tax crimes.

Medvedev is also pushing for a reform of the Interior Ministry, largely in response to a series of recent sandals involving Russian police. Last week he ordered the Interior Ministry to cut its 1.4 million strong staff (including police, interior ministry troops and civilian officials) by 20 percent by January 1, 2012.

Will these moves be enough to increase government accountability? Vladimir Milov, politician and former deputy ministrer of energy, commented on the Echo Moscow radio station website: “only the most naive would consider the ‘cleansing’ of the Federal Penitentiary Service as a positive move by the President in response to the death of Sergei Magnitsky.

In reality, the death of Magnitsky was clearly used as a reason to try to strengthen the cadres of the FPS with people loyal to the President.”

Time will tell. That the critical report was released and widely publicized is a positive sign. But issues that Magnitsky’s case touches on — human rights violations, squalid prison conditions, corruption and lack of accountability — run deep and will not be easily rectified.

For more:

What Russian newspapers say on the topic:

And, Neve Barker of Al Jazeera English reports on prison conditions in Russia.

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1 comment


You can judge a society by the way they handle prisoners. That says a lot about Russia. They have a long way to go in Human Rights practices…of course with our Gitmo history we don’t exactly shine in accomplishments.

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