Andrew Osborn








Sergei Magnitsky case: it's down to Dmitry Medvedev to act, 28th July 2011 07:30

By , Moscow

When I attended the funeral of Sergei Magnitsky, a little known tax lawyer, in a bleak Moscow cemetery just under two years ago it was hard to imagine that his death would one day cause Moscow and Washington to fall out.

But this week that is exactly what happened. Washington has quietly banned up to 60 Russian officials accused of involvement in his horrific death from entering the US and the Kremlin is busy drawing up its own blacklist of US officials to bar in revenge.

Sergei Magnitsky is not a household name in Russia or the West. But the shameful way in which he died at the age of just 37 in a squalid Moscow prison has become emblematic of much that is rotten with Russia's judicial, police and political system.

There is incontrovertible evidence that he was withheld essential medical care (with it he probably would have lived), there are strong suggestions that he was physically beaten by guards before his death, and there is cast-iron proof that the conditions in which he languished were appalling.

That he was incarcerated at all, for almost a year without trial, was scandalous. He was after all accused of facilitating corporate tax evasion, a white collar crime (and one that he denied and has never been proven), not of murder or rape.

Then there are the troubling circumstances of his case. Before he died, Mr Magnitsky, who was working for UK-based investment fund Hermitage at the time, had uncovered the biggest tax fraud in Russian history (£142 million) and had pointed the finger at what he said was a corrupt group of policemen, investigators, tax officials and others.

In an outrageous breach of natural justice, the very policemen he accused of fraud were the people who arrested and locked him up. Almost two years have passed since Mr Magnitsky's death. Yet the official investigation is still ongoing and none of the people he accused of fraud have been punished (and many of them remain in their posts). Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has spoken about the case in sympathetic tones and promised that justice will be done.

But Mr Medvedev has promised many things since he was elected in 2008 and only a few of them have actually come to pass. If the United States believes that up to 60 Russian officials were complicit in his death, it is well within its rights to deny them entry as "human rights violators."

The measure is not, as some Kremlin hardliners believe, a sinister plot to blacken Russia's name. It is a signal meant to send Moscow a simple message: such behaviour is unacceptable, anywhere, and should be punished.

Russia is a sovereign nation and can choose to ignore or act on that. Yet Mr Medvedev has himself repeatedly stated that he wants to restore the rule of law in Russia. Instead of lashing out at the United States in what is ultimately a futile war of words, Mr Medvedev still has a chance to make good on his own rhetoric and ensure that justice really is done in the Magnitsky case. Not because the United States thinks that justice should prevail, but because he, as Russia's president, believes it should. Over to you Mr Medvedev.