Russian police accused over dead lawyer

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A commission appointed by President Dmitry Medvedev has found that Russian police fabricated charges against an anti-corruption lawyer, whose death in prison in 2009 has come to symbolise pervasive corruption in Russian law enforcement.

Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working for Hermitage Capital, formerly the largest portfolio investor in Russia, was imprisoned in 2008 after he reported a $230m tax fraud to Russian authorities, accusing police of carrying it out.

He died after almost a year in progressively worse conditions and was denied urgent medical care in an effort to coerce him to change his testimony, according to human rights groups. The federal prison service has admitted it was partly responsible for the death in custody.

The case has become one of the biggest headaches faced by Russia’s government which has yet to charge anyone. No one has yet been charged over the death, despite overwhelming evidence that Magnitsky was forcibly silenced by corrupt police officers.

An investigation by the Russian prosecutor’s office, ordered by Mr Medvedev in December 2009, has still not been completed.

One key figure, Oleg Silchenko, the interior ministry officer who signed the orders detaining Mr Magnitsky without trial for nearly a year until his death, was even promoted last July to Lt Col.

On Tuesday, Russian law enforcement suffered yet another blow when Mr Medvedev’s own human rights commission, staffed by independent lawyers, said the charges against Mr Magnitsky in 2008 had been “fabricated” by the police officers who arrested him, and had no legal basis.

At least one of these officers, Lt Col Artyom Kuznetsov, was among the men Mr Magnitsky had accused of participating in the $230m fraud. Mr Kuznetsov has refused to comment on the case.

The denial of medical care in prison was intended to coerce Mr Magnitsky to change his testimony against interior ministry officials, according to a December 2009 report by the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, created by Mr Medvedev to oversee human rights in jails.

The report shown to journalists on Tuesday was commissioned by Mr Medvedev at a meeting on human rights in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on February 1, in which he asked his human rights council to examine the legal bases for the arrests of Mr Magnitsky. “The accusations against Magnitsky were fabricated by employees of the MVD [Interior Ministry] and FSB [Federal Security Service]” said the report.

Police had arrested Mr Magnitsky in 2008 on charges of evading taxes in 2001 which the council’s report ruled was baseless because he had been since cleared of any wrongdoing by the Russian Tax Service. In any event the time limit on such charges would have expired in 2004, according to the report.

William Browder, head of Hermitage Capital, said he welcomed the report, but added: “Everybody knows that Sergei Magnitsky was falsely accused, arrested, and killed by the interior ministry. The real question is why Mr Medvedev and the Russian government are unable or unwilling to do anything to punish his murderers.”

The Russian Interior Ministry has said that it is awaiting the results of the formal investigation currently being conducted by the prosecutor’s office, which was begun on Mr Medvedev’s order in December 2009.

“There are supervisory bodies, in this case the prosecutor’s office, and it is in their competency to make such judgements. We will leave this announcement with commentary”, the interior ministry said on Tuesday.

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