For years, Russia has been a dangerous place for journalists and human rights activists who probe the murky relationship between government, police, and organized crime. Now, it is becoming increasingly treacherous for businessmen and their associates who do the same.
Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working for William Browder, CEO of the London-based investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, died last month in Moscow’s Butryka prison, where he had been held for a year without charge. Magnitsky had helped Hermitage reveal an alleged $230-million tax fraud that implicated Russian police and government officials. Other lawyers hired by Hermitage to investigate the case have also been arrested and severely beaten. Several have fled the country.
Magnitsky, a father of two children, officially died of heart failure. His colleagues say he was kept in a tiny, filthy cell and denied medical treatment in an effort to force him to “confess” to the tax fraud he had uncovered. Russian authorities refused to allow an independent autopsy, but last month announced an investigation into the circumstances of his death. Browder doubts it will accomplish anything.
“Sergei went into prison at the age of 36 as a healthy young man. To the extent that there are issues they want to cover up, we’ll never know what really happened,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “The law enforcement organs of Russia have now become infiltrated by organized crime figures. Many who have the power to arrest people in Russia use those powers for economic gain. As a result, you have this situation where the richest oligarchs in Russia now are the ones who can arrest people. There are good, honest government officials and honest ministers, but even if they’re honest, they’re afraid of being arrested themselves. You essentially have the state being occupied in important positions by criminals who can ruin the lives of anyone who stands in their way.”