Russia’s prison service is to be applauded for admitting some responsibility for the controversial death in jail of a Moscow lawyer working for western investors.

“This was a deplorable incident, which has left a serious stain on the entire work of our judicial system,” a top official said of 37-year-old Sergei Magnitsky’s death.

We could not have put it better ourselves. Russia badly needs officials ready to come clean about their failings. It would be wonderful if the Magnitsky case now prompted a real reform of justice. But, sadly for Russia’s 140m people, that is too much to expect of their authoritarian and sometimes brutal state.

Lawyers for Mr Magnitsky, who had been detained for a year on tax fraud charges, claimed he was deliberately mistreated to force a confession.

Mr Magnitsky was held in a probe aimed at William Browder, a fund manager, who was banned from Russia in 2005 after alleging corruption at big companies. The interior ministry then accused him and his company, Hermitage Capital Management, of tax evasion. Mr Browder responded by accusing interior ministry officials of a complex $230m tax fraud using Hermitage-linked companies. Mr Browder’s bid to interest the Kremlin in the case was going nowhere until Mr Magnitsky’s sudden death.

The authorities are now rattled. President Dmitry Medvedev, himself an ex-lawyer, last week ordered an inquiry even before the prison service made its admission.

Given the repeated pledges he has made to enforce the rule of law, Mr Medvedev should seize on the Magnitsky case to put his words into action. He should start by reviewing conditions in prisons, where deaths are all too common, and overhauling the interior ministry to make its officials accountable before the courts.

Unfortunately, he will face overwhelming opposition. The authoritarian state created by Vladimir Putin, the prime minister and former president, has allowed officials to see themselves as above the law. Corruption and abuse of power have flourished, as has a woeful neglect of the rights of ordinary citizens. Imposing the rule of law on this self-serving bureaucracy would mean tearing it down. The governing elite will simply not destroy its political and financial power in this way.

But Mr Medvedev must do what he can. A small improvement in jail conditions would bring relief to tens of thousands of prisoners. If even this is achieved, Mr Magnitsky will not have died in vain.

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