Lawyer’s Death In Russian Prison Sparks Haunted Anger

Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for a London-based fund that was once the biggest in Russia, wrote to his mother of wasting away from an agonizing illness without proper medical care in a crowded Moscow prison. He was awaiting trial for tax-evasion charges. But Magnitsky eventually died in prison, just 11 days after his last letter reached his mother. Magnitsky's story has hit a nerve in Russia, where memories linger of the millions who died of cold, starvation and neglect in the harsh Soviet gulag. Host Scott Simon talks about the Magnitsky case with NPR's Anne Garrels.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We turn next to Russia and the story of Sergei Magnitsky. He was a 37-year-old lawyer who died a month ago in a Moscow prison after being denied medical treatment. NPR's Anne Garrels joins us. Anne, thanks for being with us.

ANNE GARRELS: Delighted.

SIMON: And help us understand the significance of this case in Russia.

GARRELS: Well, the death of this young lawyer has unexpectedly thrown a spotlight on corruption, the persecution of lawyers in high-profile proceedings, prison conditions, and long pretrial detentions. And it's finally sparked action by President Dmitry Medvedev, though not enough, according to Magnitsky's defenders.

SIMON: Why was he in prison in the first place?

GARRELS: Magnitsky and a U.S. British investor, William Browder, once the largest foreign investor in the Russian stock market, accused senior interior ministry officials of corruption, specifically of stealing $230 million in federal funds. One of those very same officials then turned around and charged Magnitsky with organizing a scheme to evade taxes.

He was held for nearly a year in pretrial detention in conditions that appear to have directly lead to his death.

SIMON: What do we know about those conditions?

GARRELS: Well, Magnitsky drafted a series of handwritten letters and petitions describing his transfer through a succession of crowded jail cells, some reeking of sewage, others cold, damp and infested with rats. He reported being denied medical care, despite abdominal pains apparently so intense he couldn't lie down, and a diagnosis of pancreatitis by prison doctors.

He accused police of offering to free him if he incriminated his client, Bill Browder. He wrote the more he rejected those proposals, the worst the conditions became. In addition to this, he repeatedly described how he was denied the ability to launch an adequate defense.

Senior U.S. and European officials repeatedly raised this case with their Russian counterparts. They applied to President Dmitry Medvedev to get involved. They had no success, until the young lawyer's much-publicized death.

SIMON: And what's the reaction of authorities been?

GARRELS: Well, at first it looked like authorities were just going to look the other way - I mean as they had done for a year. But then the interior minister and the interior ministry immediately said, hey, we never received any complaints from Magnitsky. But then human rights groups, Browder and some independent media, published his handwritten appeals.

This sparked a far wider public debate than anyone expected, not so much about the merits of the corruption case but about prison conditions, which is an issue of great public interest in Russia. And President Medvedev suddenly and unexpectedly ordered an investigation into Magnitsky's care. He's since ordered the firing of 20 senior prison officials.

Medvedev then, though, dismissed the man responsible for fighting tax crimes. This official played a central role in the Magnitsky case, and this would seem to be getting closer to the heart of the matter. But the Kremlin's been pretty coy about describing exactly why he was fired.

SIMON: Is the Magnitsky case being seen as some kind of potential turning point in Russian history?

GARRELS: People hope so. Certainly Medvedev's done more than anyone expected, but it's not enough for Magnitsky's defenders. So far Medvedev has basically focused largely on prison conditions, and he's been less willing to confront allegations of corruption and what Bill Browder calls outright revenge against Magnitsky leading to this death.

Basically, Medvedev's been dancing around the edges. It's unclear how far he's willing to go. The case may well have links to the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the KGB, with whom Prime Minister Putin has close ties. And it's not clear how far Medvedev can or wants to take on such powerful adversaries. After all, Putin was the man who launched his career and he's been yet to take him on sort of head to head.

SIMON: NPR's Anne Garrels, thanks so much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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