It is possible that a 44-year-old Russian, whose body was found outside his house in Weybridge two weeks ago, died of natural causes. Such things happen. But this does not alter the fact that Alexander Perepilichnyy's death is mighty convenient. Who benefits? Other Russians whose nefarious activities stood to be exposed by his cooperation with Swiss banking investigators. Nor would they be just any other Russians, but state officials, police, tax officers and others implicated in the case of Sergei Magnitsky.
A self-taught lawyer, Magnitsky worked for a law firm representing Hermitage Capital, one of the largest foreign investors in post-Soviet Russia. After Bill Browder, the company's US-born chief executive was suddenly declared persona non grata, Magnitsky tracked a vast tax scam to which Hermitage had fallen victim. His mistake was to have had the courage to name names – specifically those of certain officials in the Interior Ministry. He was arrested in 2008, held in prison without charge, denied medical treatment for serious stomach illnesses and beaten. He lived only a year.
Browder has made strenuous efforts to secure posthumous justice for his lawyer. One of his main lines of activity has been lobbying the US Congress to pass a Magnitsky Act, which would allow the authorities to refuse visas and freeze the assets of individuals implicated in the case. The notion that one person might lobby the US Congress successfully for something that might be seen as marginal to the US national interest almost beggars belief. Browder's own persuasive force was surely a factor, along with his deep pockets. But so did some fortunate timing. The measure was passed 10 days ago.
Whether it really bites remains in question, but the very idea of a Magnitsky Act infuriates Russia. And the glory of it is that it would hit those named Russians where it would hurt – in their freedom to travel and spend in one of the countries they most enjoy. But only one.
Browder accepts that the chances of a UK Magnitsky Act are almost nil. Which is probably realistic, but deeply regrettable. It might be too late to help Sergei Magnitsky and Alexander Perepilichnyy. But with London the favoured playground of those Russians – and not just Russians – who want to spend their dubious money and flaunt their dangerous connections, a Magnitsky Act forcing them to stay away is exactly what we need.