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Medvedev steps in after death of anti-corruption activist in jail

Lawyer who accused officials of stealing $230m dies after repeatedly complaining about inadequate medical care in prison

Friends and relatives take part in the funeral ceremony of Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow earlier this month.
Friends and relatives take part in the funeral ceremony of Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow earlier this month.

MOSCOW // In the last months of his detention in Moscow's notorious Butyrka jail, the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky repeatedly complained about the inadequate medical care he was receiving and his increasingly harsh living conditions in the facility. "Investigators have persecuted me for my refusal to testify falsely against myself and others," Magnitsky wrote to a Russian interior ministry investigator in a September 9 petition made public by the lawyer's colleagues. "The administration at the detention centres has cooperated with the investigators to create unbearable conditions for me in their facilities."

Just over two months later, Magnitsky died of toxic shock and heart failure at 37 while awaiting trial on charges of helping William Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital, once Russia's largest foreign portfolio investor, of evading US$3.4 million (Dh12.5m) in taxes. Magnitsky's death on November 16 is a cruel twist in the long, often Byzantine battle between Hermitage and Russian authorities. Hermitage, for which Magnitsky worked as outside counsel, says the deceased lawyer was jailed on trumped-up charges as retaliation for his discovery of a massive scam in which he accused interior ministry officials of stealing $230m in state funds. The interior ministry defended its case against Magnitsky and its decision to keep him in custody, claiming that he was a flight risk and could have intimidated witnesses.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, has ordered an investigation into Magnitksy's death, which has sparked passionate public debate about inhumane conditions in the Russian penal system and official abuse and negligence. But Magnitsky's death also has many citizens and politicians - including Mr Medvedev - questioning whether Magnitsky should have been behind bars in the first place. Hundreds of thousands of Russians each year are, as with Magntisky, denied bail and kept in pretrial detention facilities while being investigated for alleged white-collar crimes.

After a meeting with his human rights council last week in which the council's head, Ella Pamfilova, called Magnitsky's death "a murder and a tragedy", Mr Medvedev ordered his prosecutor general, Yury Chaika, and his federal prison service head, Alexander Konovalov, to examine alternatives to incarcerating suspected white-collar criminals with no previous record during investigations. Businessmen in Russia are frequent targets of what are known as "raider attacks", illegal seizures of property or businesses through fraud, forgery, identity theft or violence. One common tactic in such seizures is to bribe investigators and judges to keep the target in jail on false criminal charges, said Kirill Kabanov, head of the Moscow-based National Corruption Committee, a nongovernmental organisation.

Media reports have put the number of raider attacks annually as high as 70,000, though experts say no reliable statistics exist. "Police, prosecutors, court marshals and judges are often direct participants in illegal raider attacks, making them largely disinclined to investigate or crack down on the myriad crimes involved in such hostile takeovers," said Alexander Brechalov, vice president of Opora, a lobby group for small- and mid-sized businesses. The problem is particularly acute in Russia's far-flung regions, he said.

"It really deters potential entrepreneurs from opening up businesses," Mr Brechalov said. "Why grow a business when it can be taken away so easily by criminals? And foreigners thinking about investing in Russia wonder if they should even go to the trouble." Hermitage claims that Magnitsky was the person who unmasked a raider attack against the company that resulted in three of its subsidiary companies being seized and used to fraudulently reclaim a $230m tax refund from the Russian treasury. Magnitsky was arrested after he implicated interior ministry officers in the scam, according to Hermitage.

In fact, a Moscow court did convict someone for the fraud in April: a sawmill foreman named Viktor Markelov, who was sentenced to five years in prison for organising the scheme with "unknown persons", according to the verdict. Hermitage said there was no way Markelov could have organised such a complex operation by himself and that he was likely a fall guy. The stolen money, the company notes, has simply disappeared.

The interior ministry's spokeswoman, Irina Dudukina, said at a news conference last week that there was no political subtext to Magntisky's detention and that investigators had collected sufficient evidence to convict him. Alexander Smirnov, deputy head of the Russian Federal Prison Service, conceded that the penal system was partially to blame for Magnitsky's death, but he did not want to rush to judgment before the conclusion of the investigation.

Mr Browder said on Friday it was essential that an independent investigation be conducted. Currently it is being handled by Russia's federal investigative committee. cschreck@thenational.ae