Sergei Magnitsky – a Tragic Metaphor for Russia’s Judicial, Law Enforcement and Governance Systems

Henry Jackson Society

16 November 2010 – One year ago this very day, Sergei Magnitsky passed away in what was a tragic and unjust death. And yet, the past three-hundred sixty five days have seen little in the way of justice or accountability. In fact, a vast array of questions remains unanswered – questions which are posed in the direction of the Russian state. Many believed that Russia had caught up with the 21st century; that Russia had become at least some semblance of a democracy, providing governance and security for its citizens and adhering to the rule of law. The truth, however, is that Sergei Magnitsky’s death is a tragic metaphor for Russia’s judicial, law enforcement and governance systems, systems in which justice is slowly and painfully killed by the state’s defiance of the rule of law.

The story of Sergei’s death is well documented. Sergei Magnitsky was a man who believed in the virtues of his motherland’s legal system; a lawyer who sought to uncover the largest tax fraud in Russian history committed by officials within the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) to the tune of $230 million; and a man who was acting out of the interest of both his client and the Russian state. A month after his efforts to bring justice to light, Sergei Magnitsky was arrested by the officials he stood against and was placed in detention for over 11 months where he was forced to endure appalling conditions with no access to medical treatment. On 16 November 2009, as a result of the denial of medical care in prison, he tragically passed away.

The Sergei Magnitsky case prompted outrage within Russia’s borders and beyond. Both Russian Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signaled their intention to launch high-level probes into the situation and the Investigative Committee announced it had opened a criminal case regarding the negligent treatment of Magnitsky while in detention. Moreover, the Moscow Helsinki group, an independent human rights group, called on Russian authorities to commence legal action against the MVD officials involved. But despite these signals of intention, nobody has ever been brought to justice. Perhaps the most galling aspect of the injustice has been that a number of MVD officials implicated in the Magnitsky case have gone on to receive promotions; five receiving awards for distinguished service – as clear a defiance of accountability and the rule of law as one is likely to see.

Outside of Russia’s borders, further action has been taken to pursue some form of justice. U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe has urged Washington to employ sanctions against 60 Russian citizens implicated in the case. Cardin wrote to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on April 26 recommending that the US pursue the courses of action at its disposal in order to bring about a degree of justice. Moreover, Sergei Magnitsky’s former client, and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, William Browder has engaged a commendable campaign to draw light upon the injustice surrounding Magnitsky’s death. In addressing congress on May 6, he put forward the case to approve the ‘Cardin list’, to freeze bank accounts of corrupt Russian officials, to demand Russia punish those responsible for Sergei’s death and torture and to demand Russia protect its lawyers.

The common theme of these campaigns has been not only justice for Sergei Magnitsky and his family, but concern over the sheer lack of accountability and justice more generally in Moscow. Russia remains a dangerous place; a place where the state is as much a threat to its citizens as it is the guarantor of their security; where governance is riddled with corruption; and perhaps most unmistakably, where the rule of law is simply hollow rhetoric. In fact, the rule of law in Moscow is a distant aspiration and will continue to be so as long as Russia’s security services operate in a legal void, as long as its judicial system is hindered with flagrant inadequacies and as long as its government operates under the grip of corruption and criminality.

Interfering with Russia’s domestic political situation may be difficult – it may be impossible. But the international community must follow the precedent set by William Browder and US Sen. Ben Cardin so as to ensure that, where possible, justice is achieved – if not on Russian shores, then ours. The long term project of encouraging rule of law to embed in Russian society will be a longer and trickier road. Ultimately it is up to Moscow to design and implement its own path of reform and institution building so as to allow the rule of law to cement itself within the political culture of Russia, and have a truly free and fair Russia that prospers. Sergei Magnitsky paid for this process with his life. With the launch of a new film about his murder in 7 Parliaments across the world tonight, we must redouble our efforts that he will be the last good man or woman to do so.

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