Death in a Russian prison cell: Britain's shameful silence

One minute Sergei Magnitsky was investigating tax fraud. The next he was dead. A coincidence? No, the businessman campaigning for the truth tells Jerome Taylor

Two years ago today the body of a father of two from Moscow was found face down in a prison isolation cell where he had languished in squalid conditions for more than 11 months. Every year hundreds of people die inside Russian prisons and most go unreported.

But the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a corporate lawyer hired by a British firm to investigate a multimillion-dollar tax scam, lit a fire that has rallied those seeking to end the culture of corruption and impunity among Russian government officials and has caused diplomatic rifts that have reverberated around the world.

Yesterday Mr Magnitsky's mother, Natalia Magnitskaya, travelled to Berlin for the opening of a new exhibition on the death of her son. One of those present at the ceremony was Bill Browder, a millionaire British hedge fund manager, who initially hired Mr Magnitsky as an investigator and has since spearheaded the campaign to bring those responsible for his death to justice.

After two years of relentless lobbying, the American-born British businessman has managed to gather a growing coalition of European and North American nations who – much to the chagrin of the Kremlin – have either brought in visa bans against 60 officials named as complicit in Mr Magnitsky's death or are in the process of passing sanctions against them.

But he remains frustrated at Britain's lack of response, accusing Foreign Office diplomats of being loath to start a fight with their Russian counterparts.

"I've encountered more bureaucratic resistance in Britain than anywhere else," he told The Independent yesterday. "The Foreign Office seems to be primarily interested in maintaining as uncontroversial a status quo as they can. There doesn't seem to be any genuine concern that murderers could come into this country."

In contrast to countries such as the United States, Canada and the Netherlands, Britain has so far resisted any pressure to publicly ban the officials from entering the UK. Earlier this year, after a coalition of 20 US senators took up Mr Browder's cause, the State Department reluctantly announced that 60 officials believed to be involved in Mr Magnitsky's arrest, detention, death and subsequent cover-up were placed on a visa ban list. It was the first time Russian officials had been publicly forbidden from entering the US in 25 years and has sparked a series of tit-for-tat responses from the Kremlin, which has accused Washington of meddling.

Moscow recently announced a blacklist of unnamed American officials involved in "high-profile humanitarian crimes" such as the "indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the uninvestigated killings of peaceful people in Iraq and Afghanistan". Last week it emerged that two Russian generals who have been linked to the Magnitsky case pulled out of a planned visit to Washington.

The move has only emboldened Mr Browder's supporters in the Senate who have now tabled a broad human rights bill – named after Magnitsky – which would invoke a travel ban against violators of human rights, freeze any US assets they hold and publish their names. The Dutch and Canadian parliaments have since passed resolutions in favour of tabling a similar bill and Mr Browder believes he has now secured the support of Germany and Poland.

But attempts to pursue successful prosecutions inside Russia have hit a brick wall. Mr Magnitsky was hired by Mr Browder in 2008 to investigate a multimillion-dollar tax fraud allegedly carried out on his businesses by Russian officials working from within the country's powerful interior ministry. His employer had already fallen out with the Kremlin. Mr Browder, who runs the hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management, made millions trading shares in Russian firms following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he never shied away from speaking out about the corrupt management practices in firms he invested in. By 2005 he had been banned from the country.

Mr Magnitsky spent months investigating a tax scam which cost the Russian taxpayer £144m. When he publicly named the officials he believed were responsible, he was arrested by those he had implicated and kept in appalling pre-trial prison conditions until he died.

Human rights groups – including President Dmitri Medvedev's own human rights watchdog – have said there is ample evidence showing that the 37-year-old was tortured, beaten and denied access to vital medical help. Yet no one has been prosecuted.

"Any façade of legitimacy that the Russians have tried to portray has completely fallen apart," says Mr Browder, whose grandfather used to be the head of America's Communist Party.

But he remains angry that Britain appears to have bought the official line from Moscow that the case is being properly investigated. He says: "I'm a British citizen. Yet it appears that there are a number of civil servants who would rather have Russian torturers and murderers come here than risk a diplomatic furore."

The Foreign Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Timeline: The case

2007 Sergei Magnitsky receives death threats when he uncovers a tax fraud worth £144m, the biggest in Russian history, which implicates politicians, police, judges and members of the Russian mafia.

2008 Magnitsky is arrested by the same police officers he publicly names as being part of the tax scam he uncovered.

2009 Magnitsky dies in prison. Russia's own human rights commission later finds he was refused family visits, was not allowed medical treatment when he fell ill with pancreatitis. Medical evidence suggests he was also beaten.

2010 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urges Russia to bring officials responsible for Magnitsky's death to justice. The EU passes a law allowing member states to seize assets held by 60 Russian officials implicated in the crime.

2011 State Department puts 60 officials on visa ban list. Similar plans being sought in Canada, Netherlands and Poland. Britain does not pursue a ban. Two doctors who failed to attend Magnitsky are the only two officials punished. A number of other officials have been promoted.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz