Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Russia is an obscenely corrupt society: Killing the messenger

Time Magazine   For the first time in Russia’s history, a dead man has been placed in the dock, and it will not be easy for the court to parse all of the cryptic corollaries of that lurid fact. How, for instance, is the defense attorney supposed to consult with his client? A Ouija board? Some kind of voodoo mediation? And what about the issue of habeas corpus — literally, “show me the body” — the bedrock principle of common law that requires the accused to be brought before a judge? Are we to expect an exhumation? “It is a self-evident absurdity,” says William Browder, Magnitsky’s former employer and now his co-defendant in the case. “There’s no way in the world that a lawyer can represent him.” But with a trial as steeped as this one in Russian politics, nothing should seem too far-fetched.

The saga that led to Magnitsky’s death — and subsequently his trial — began in 2009, when Browder hired the young tax attorney to keep the books of Hermitage Capital, Browder’s investment fund in Moscow. While digging into the some of the fund’s corporate documents, which Russian police had seized during a raid, Magnitsky uncovered the largest known tax fraud in Russian history. A gang of detectives, tax inspectors and other bureaucrats had allegedly used the fund’s corporate seals and documents to file for a tax refund worth $230 million. Following the paper trail, Magnitsky found that this refund — also the largest in Russian history — had been rubber-stamped at a Moscow tax office in just one day. After that, the money vanished into various offshore accounts. Magnitsky immediately blew the whistle, even offering to give testimony against the officials in court, including agents of the FSB secret police, which Vladimir Putin led before becoming Russia’s President in 2000.

But instead of investigating his claims, which were backed by a paper trail, police placed Magnitsky under arrest and charged him with tax fraud. In his prison cell, he kept a diary documenting life in pre-trial detention — with rats, hunger, flooded and freezing cells — and without the medical treatment he needed. Transferred repeatedly from cell to cell, Magnitsky developed acute pancreatitis, which doctors refused to treat. In November 2009, Magnitsky died in excruciating pain at Moscow’s Butyrka prison. According to the Kremlin’s own human rights council, which later investigated the case, he was also badly beaten shortly before he died.

To this day, all of the officials Magnitsky incriminated, as well as those involved in his alleged torture and death, remain free. Nearly all of them have either kept their jobs or been promoted. So Browder, his former boss, began to seek justice in western capitals, a campaign TIME reported on here. The greatest success of that effort was the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which passed with a huge bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate last year. It prohibits corrupt Russian officials from holding U.S. visas, bank accounts or property, and it starts with the group implicated in Magnitsky’s death.

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