The case of Sergei Magnitsky, named after the Russian jurist who died in prison in 2009 after denouncing a corruption scandal, unleashed a diplomatic storm between Moscow and Washington.
Nearly ten years after his death in a Moscow prison, Sergei Magnitsky won a posthumous moral victory in Strasbourg on Tuesday (August 27th). The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has strongly condemned Russia for multiple violations of fundamental rights in the case, which resulted in the death of this reputed anti-corruption lawyer. Regularly beaten during his eleven months of preventive detention, then left without care in his cell, he ended up beaten to death. Officially, the death of Sergei Magnitsky, on November 16, 2009, occurred “by negligence”. A version denounced by human rights defenders who have made it an emblematic cause.
In its judgment, the ECHR denounces the ill-treatment, the inadequate conditions of incarceration, the lack of adequate medical care and the excessive length of detention. Judges in Strasbourg believe that Sergei Magnitsky was subjected to prison violence until shortly before his death. And they blame Russian justice for an incomplete investigation into the circumstances of the death, describing as “superficial” the decision, in March 2013, the authorities to dismiss it. However, the ECHR did not accept the qualification of “arbitrary detention”, which was immediately noted by Moscow. “The European Court found manifestly unfounded the complaint of arbitrary detention of Mr. Magnitsky, recognizing that his arrest and detention were in full compliance with the Convention,” said the Russian Ministry of Justice.
“Our judges do not respect Strasbourg’s decisions”
“This judgment confirms that Sergei Magnitsky was tortured in prison and his rights were violated,” said Zoïa Svetova, a journalist and human rights activist. “Today it is a relief for her family in Strasbourg to get the justice she could not get in Russia,” says Svetova, who has been investigating Sergei Magnitsky and preparing a book. “But, alas, the judgments of the ECHR have little effect because our judges do not respect the decisions of Strasbourg,” she regrets. A member since 1996 of the Council of Europe, Russia has fully executed only 38% of the judgments of the Court against him, according to the forum of Russian NGOs for the defense of human rights.
The Magnitsky affair sparked a first diplomatic storm between the United States and Russia. In late 2012, Washington, under the presidency of Barack Obama, adopted a text providing for sanctions (freezing of assets and visa bans) against Russian officials considered responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky. “An unfriendly gesture,” then denounced Vladimir Putin. In retaliation, the Kremlin leader suddenly banned American families from adopting Russian children.
These diplomatic suites were far from the original file. Sergey Magnitsky, a tax lawyer, advised Hermitage Capital, a Western investment fund in Moscow headed by Bill Browder, at the time. While being well in court in the Kremlin, this British financier denounced the corruption in the system and ended up too much disturbance. Result: became in 2005 persona non grata in Russia, he was one day denied entry into the Russian territory. The financier rejected a compromising offer of collaboration with the power and, helplessly, suffered raids against his companies.
Indicted by the very people he denounced
To clarify these maneuvers, Bill Browder hired lawyers. But their investigations for corruption turned against them and all of them fled abroad. All but one: 36-year-old Sergei Magnitsky, who ends up being arrested in 2008 for tax evasion after denouncing a massive financial machination of 130 million euros orchestrated, according to him, by police and tax officials. He is indicted by the very people he denounced.
It is then that the eleven months during which Sergei Magnitsky is beaten in prison begin. In his diary, he recounts his martyrdom. But the more he complains, the more his detention conditions deteriorate. The lawyer ends up in filthy cells and, at the end of his strength, he is sent to a medical antenna where he dies at the age of 37. He succumbed, according to the prison services, to a malaise. But an investigation by the Kremlin Human Rights Advisory Council in 2011 concluded that he had been beaten and denied treatment. However, no criminal prosecution has been initiated.
Before his death, Sergei Magnitsky had himself seized the ECHR. A long process pursued by his wife and mother. The Court sentenced Russia to pay them 34,000 euros for non-pecuniary damage, an unusually large sum. While in July 2013, four years after his death, Sergei Magnitsky was found guilty of tax evasion, the ECHR severely judged this posthumous conviction as “inherently inadequate”.