It is possible that a 44-year-old Russian, whose body was found outside his house on a millionaires’ estate 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 mightily convenient. Ask the standard question – who benefits? – and there is a ready answer: 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.
Now there is room for different views about the political condition of Russia today. The case of Pussy Riot, in which two of three female punk rockers received two-year prison sentences for playing a profane – and anti-Putin – song in Moscow’s main cathedral may be emblematic, especially for Westerners, of a new Kremlin clampdown, but it exposed real divisions in Russia about the place of the Orthodox Church and the limits, if any, on free speech. Then there is the legislation requiring groups that receive foreign money and engage in political activity to register as “foreign agents”, which has been denounced by many Western rights groups, even though the law in many countries, including ours, takes a dim view of foreign money in domestic politics.
The Russian state’s flagrant violation of rights in the Magnitsky case is of quite a different order. The sequence of events takes us right back to the bad old Soviet days. A self-taught lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky worked for a law firm representing Hermitage Capital, one of the largest foreign investors inside 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, if it can be called that, was to have had the courage to name names – and specifically the names of certain officials in the Interior Ministry he believed to be involved. He was arrested in 2008, held in prison without charge, denied medical treatment for serious stomach illnesses and beaten. He lived only a year.
In his character, too, Magnitsky recalls the Soviet dissidents of old. His high principles came with a certain stubbornness. If there were names to be named, he would name them. In prison, he knew his rights and stood up for them, chapter and verse. A play – One Hour Eighteen Minutes – based on documents and interviews, and staged last week in London, shows Magnitsky writing complaint after complaint to the prison authorities, most of which fell on deaf ears. Judges, prison warders, doctors, the emergency services were trained to see anyone and anything awkward as a potential risk to their employment. They knew what was expected of them. If anyone doubted that, at least until very recently, the judicial system was one of the least reconstructed areas of Russian life, here is proof.
But the staging of this sombre, consciousness-raising play – whose title refers to the time doctors had to wait outside Magnitsky’s cell as he was dying – represents but a fraction of Browder’s 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, let alone one based abroad –Browder is based in Britain – might lobby the US Congress successfully for something that might be seen as marginal, if that, to the US national interest almost beggars belief.
Browder’s own persuasive force was surely a factor, along with his deep pockets (somehow he was able to get much of his money out of Russia). But so was some fortunate timing. The US Congress was finally – almost 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union – preparing to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which restricted trade with the then Soviet Union in protest against restrictions on emigration for Soviet Jews. The amendment was already outdated even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it remained on the books as a stick for the US to beat the Russians with – and a perpetual irritant to the Russians.
The survival of Jackson-Vanik had owed much to those members of Congress with large anti-Russian émigré constituencies. The prospect of a Magnitsky Act could be seen as a useful quid pro quo for the loss of Jackson-Vanik, and gave Browder a point of entry. The measure was passed by the House of Representatives 10 days ago, with only one vote against, and is set to pass the Senate as soon as this week.
Whether the measures really bite or are effectively neutralised by other legislation 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 is already lobbying Brussels to pass something similar, but he 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 – except in the preservation of his memory – too late, as well, to do anything for 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.