Rights Court Condemns Russia Over Magnitsky Death

Nataliya Magnitskaya, mother of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in jail, holds a photo of her son as she speaks during a Nov. 30, 2009, interview with the Associated Press in Moscow, Russia. A top European court says Russia’s failure to provide adequate medical care to the jailed lawyer could have led to his 2009 death, which in turn brought U.S. and European sanctions. The France-based European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia on Tuesday to pay Magnitsky’s wife and mother $37,800 in damages. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

(CN) – The European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday that Russian prison guards, doctors and criminal investigators violated the human rights of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old tax expert and lawyer whose death in prison 10 years ago became a cause célèbre.

The court, based in Strasbourg, France, set out in chilling detail how Magnitsky was kept for months in brutal conditions inside Moscow prisons as he awaited trial on alleged tax evasion charges. He allegedly fell foul of Russian officials after he accused them of a massive fraud scheme.

In prison, Magnitsky suffered medical problems but received inadequate care, which led to his death in November 2009, the court found. 

Considering the opinions of medical experts, the court determined it could not rule out the possibility that injuries found on Magnitsky’s body at the time of his death were caused by being struck by prison guards with truncheons.

The Court considers that the injuries could have arguably been received as a result of beatings by prison officers,” it said in its ruling.  

The court criticized Russian authorities for “discarding evidence which supported the allegation of ill treatment, such as the records on the use of a rubber truncheon.”

Magnitsky was a lawyer and tax accountant who worked for Bill Browder, a British financier who ran the Hermitage Capital hedge fund, the largest foreign investment fund in Russia at the time.

Magnitsky was also the head of the tax department at Firestone Duncan, a Moscow-based company that did legal, tax, accounting and audit services for foreign investors in Russia.

In May 2007, Interior Ministry officials opened a criminal investigation into alleged tax evasion committed by the head of Kameya Ltd., a client of Hermitage, and linked to Magnitsky’s work. 

Then, in July 2008, Magnitsky and Hermitage accused Russian officials of illegally transferring the ownership of three Hermitage subsidiaries and embezzling tax refunds worth $230 million.

Magnitsky became known among Western media as a whistleblower and anti-fraud crusader for investigating this alleged scheme.

After his accusations were made public, Magnitsky was arrested on Nov. 24, 2008, and accused of tax evasion. Officials alleged he was advising Browder on how to avoid paying taxes by hiring disabled sham employees.

While in prison, Magnitsky filed a complaint with the ECHR in June 2009, alleging he was being held in appalling conditions. He died on Nov. 16, 2009, a year after he entered the Russian prison system.

In his complaint, he also alleged that he was unlawfully being held in prison while awaiting trial. After his death, his wife and mother continued to pursue the case before the Strasbourg-based court.

On Tuesday, the court outlined the case in a lengthy judgment and unanimously ruled Russia committed multiple violations of Magnitsky’s human rights.

The court said Magnitsky was kept in dank and poorly lit cells where up to 15 other inmates were housed, and it added that he had no bunk to sleep in at times and that inmates were forced to use a lavatory pan with little privacy.

Magnitsky and other inmates were allowed to shower for 10 minutes once a week, allowed outside for no more than an hour a day, and the tax expert said he often “found worms in the food,” according to the court. 

Russian officials and courts at the time justified Magnitsky’s detention by saying he was a flight risk and might seek to influence witnesses.

Russian authorities said he had booked an airplane ticket to Kiev before his arrest and had sought a visa to the U.K. Magnitsky denied he was a flight risk.

The ECHR agreed that his initial arrest and detention were warranted, but it said Russian authorities had shown no reason for continuing to keep him in prison for so long.

In May 2009, Magnitsky complained of severe back pain, but received no medical attention. In July, a doctor determined he had gallbladder problems and an enlarged pancreas, signs of chronic pancreatitis.

Doctors then prescribed medicine and care, but Magnitskiy was transferred to a remand prison “that did not have the medical facilities” he needed, according to the human rights court.

He was denied medical care at the remand prison, even as his pain increased and his conditions worsened, the court said.

Magnitsky wrote in his diary: “The disease has become so acute that I could no longer lie in bed.” He also described how one doctor became angry when he asked for help and how a chief doctor ignored his pleas for help.

Prison and medical officials, meanwhile, claimed he was receiving medical care and was in such a satisfactory condition that he was fit for court proceedings.

By Nov. 12, 2009, Magnitsky’s condition “drastically deteriorated.” He described “intensifying acute pain in the pancreatic gland area” and had begun vomiting, the court said.

On Nov. 16, the day he died, a doctor testified Magnitsky was in a metal cage inside the prison’s medical ward when “he raised his voice and was aggressive.”

The doctor said she moved to a room next door to complete her work and, according to later testimony, heard him say: “Now they will kill me here, I am innocent in this case, why did they bring me here?”

He then was seen “running around inside the caged area,” the doctor testified. Other doctors, prison guards and a psychiatric first-aid team were called to help, the court said.

Guards put handcuffs on him and he was injected with painkillers, according to the court. Two witnesses said an officer hit Magnitsky with a rubber truncheon to “prevent suicide or self-harm.” Later, witnesses denied that a rubber truncheon had been used and claimed its mention in an earlier report was a “typing error,” according to the court.

A psychiatric emergency team was forced to wait for more than an hour in front of the prison before they were allowed to see him, and by the time the team got to him, he was dead, the court said.

They had found him, half-dressed, sitting on the floor in a cell with his back against the bunk, his arms spread out, the left leg stretched out, and the right leg bent at the knee,” the court said in the judgment. “There had been a large pool of urine under him. They had noticed pronounced traces from handcuffs on his wrists.”

Russian officials conducted investigations into his death and initially found “no grounds to believe that Mr. Magnitsky’s death had been connected to the conduct of officials responsible for his criminal prosecution.”

However, in January 2011, a follow-up investigation “established a direct causal link between Mr. Magnitsky’s death and the failure to provide him with adequate medical care,” according to the ECHR. Investigators also “concluded that certain injuries to his body could have been inflicted by a rubber truncheon.”

Investigators filed charges in 2011 against two prison doctors, accusing them of neglect of duty and negligent homicide. The case against one doctor was dropped due to the statute of limitations and the other was acquitted upon the request of prosecutors.

In March 2013, Russian investigators closed the probe into Magnitksy’s death, saying there was a “lack of any crime.” and declaring it “implausible that Mr. Magnitsky had been prosecuted in revenge for having exposed fraud by State officials.”

Investigators also concluded that “the medical examination had not disclosed any traces of violence on Mr. Magnitsky’s body,” and that injuries on his body were “self-inflicted.”

Doctors with the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights said in June 2011 that the medical neglect had been “calculated, deliberate and inhumane.”

Physicians for Human Rights said it could not determine how he died due to “inconsistent and contradictory testimony” by prison guards and doctors. The group added that Russian officials had conducted an “inadequate autopsy examination.”

Even though he was dead, Russian authorities reopened the criminal tax evasion case against Magnitsky and in July 2013 a district court found him guilty.

The human rights court called his posthumous trial a violation of his rights.

The court also blasted Russian officials for destroying logbooks detailing prison conditions at the time of Magnitsky’s imprisonment. Russian authorities said the records were destroyed because a time limit to store them had passed.

In its ruling, the court said it “concludes that by depriving Mr Magnitskiy of important medical care, the domestic authorities unreasonably put his life in danger.”

The court also found that Russia “failed to carry out an effective criminal investigation into the alleged medical negligence resulting in” his death.

Since Magnitsky’s death, Browder has campaigned on behalf of his colleague and become a well-known critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime. Browder was sentenced in absentia by a Russian court to nine years in prison for tax evasion.

On Tuesday, Browder hailed the court’s ruling as a “resounding victory” against the Russian government. He said the court’s ruling “completely destroys the lies and propaganda” that the Russian government spread about Magnitsky.

Magnitsky’s death gained widespread attention and led to the U.S, and European countries passing so-called “Magnitsky Acts.” These laws allowed the U.S. and European countries to impose sanctions on Russian officials connected to alleged human rights violations.

After the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012, Russia retaliated by outlawing the adoption of Russian children by Americans.

The ECHR ordered Russia to pay $37,800 in damages to Magnitsky’s wife and mother.

The Russian government said it was reviewing the ruling and considering an appeal, according to Interfax, a Russian news agency. 

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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