As Russia prepares to mount a posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky, state-controlled television has aired a documentary accusing the dead whistleblowing lawyer and his bosses of being part of an MI6-led conspiracy.
The documentary, which aired on Russia’s NTV on Wednesday night, said that Mr Magnitsky and William Browder, the US-born British head of the investment fund that hired him, were involved in the “crime of the century” against the Russian state.
Both the television programme and the trial, which starts on Monday, appear to be part of a vitriolic rearguard action by the Russian state, after Mr Magnitsky’s fate became the catalyst for international pressure on Moscow. Mr Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 while investigating an alleged $230m fraud perpetrated by a group of corrupt Russian officials that defrauded the Russian state. However, instead of locking up the culprits, Russian investigators moved against Mr Magnitsky himself. Locked up in Moscow’s Butyrka prison, he was refused medical treatment for a pancreatic condition, mistreated, and died in 2009.
Since then, his case has become an international rallying cry, with the US Congress passing a resolution banning Russian officials involved in his death from travelling to the US or owning property there. Enraged by the move, Russia retaliated by drawing up its own list of US officials to be banned from Russia, and also outlawed US citizens from adopting Russian orphans. President Vladimir Putin also said on live television in December that Mr Magnitsky had died of heart failure, not mistreatment, and added that the case needed further investigation, as the lawyer himself had been no angel.
Since those words, the Russian state appears to have ratcheted up a campaign against the memory of the dead lawyer, his family, and his former employer, Hermitage Capital. Hermitage, headed by Mr Browder, had employed Mr Magnitsky to investigate the fraud.
The NTV documentary insinuated that the US-born British financier had contributed to many of Russia’s recent woes, including playing a leading role in causing the 1998 default in the country. It also repeatedly suggested that Mr Browder is an agent for British intelligence services. The programme was permeated with grainy footage of the MI6 building in Vauxhall, to a background of dramatic music. This week, Russian investigators also announced a court case against Mr Browder himself, over the illegal purchase of millions of pounds of shares in the gas giant Gazprom.
“We caught them stealing an enormous amount of money from their own country, Sergei Magnitsky investigated, and exposed it and was killed by the people who stole the money,” said Mr Browder yesterday. “Now they are trying to blame this on some kind of foreign intelligence services operation, using absurd and twisted logic.”
Additionally, in recent weeks investigators have called a number of Mr Magnitsky’s relatives for questioning over the case, to the same Interior Ministry building where Mr Magnitsky himself was first taken, and from which he never returned home. “This is a clear form of psychological pressure,” said the Magnitsky family lawyer, Nikolai Gorokhov. He is boycotting the posthumous trial, which he called “outrageous and illegal”, and Mr Magnitsky will be represented by a court-appointed lawyer.
“It’s all part and parcel of the same process,” said Mr Browder, talking about the television programme and the posthumous trial. “On 20 December Putin said he wanted to delve deeper into the Magnitsky case, and in Putin-speak, that was an instruction to all government officials to come up with anything they can against Magnitsky and those close to him.”