• Putin (r) meets EU leaders last month. His remarks on TV saw the courts do a u-turn (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Investigation

EU: Magnitsky acquittal will harm Russia's reputation

03.01.13 @ 09:22

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - Russia's acquittal of the only man charged over the death of Sergei Magnitsky will harm its international reputation, the EU has said.

Magnitsky, an accountant who in 2007 exposed the fact that Russian officials and the mafia were stealing hundreds of millions of euros of tax money, later died in jail after being refused medical treatment for pancreatitis and after being beaten by his guards.

His case became a cause celebre when the US last year passed a law in his name that will see up to 60 Russian officials banned from getting American visas.

But in what amounts to an extraordinary u-turn for the Russian legal system, a Moscow judge on 28 December said there is no evidence that Dmitry Kratov - the former medical chief at the Butyrka jail, where Magnitsky died - helped caused his death by negligence.

A few days earlier the prosecutor himself called for the acquittal despite previously building a case against Kratov.

The sudden change came after Russian leader Vladimir Putin claimed on TV that Magnitsky died of natural causes.

For Magnitsky's former employer, the UK-based investment fund, Hermitage Capital, the developments show that his killers enjoy protection at the highest level of the Russian state.

"Russia normally has a 99 percent conviction rate. In this case, there was overwhelming evidence of Kratov's involvement and his acquittal goes against any logic or concept of justice," the company said last month.

For the EU foreign service, the trial by TV also shows that Russia is not serious about holding anybody to account.

"If the acquittal of Mr Kratov is to be seen as the final decision signifying the end of the investigation, this would be a negative and disappointing signal to all those who see a need for strengthened rule of law in Russia. It would raise questions about selective justice and have a negative impact on Russia's image internationally," the European External Action Service (EEAS) said in a statement to EUobserver on 2 January.

It noted that it is "looking into how to further make clear our expectations that the investigation of this case be taken forward properly."

It is not planning to table US-type EU-level sanctions against Magnitsky's suspected killers.

But in a sign of escalating bad feeling, the EEAS invited individual EU countries to take action. "Any decision on a matter like this would need to be taken by EU member states party to the Schengen agreement," it added.

Under the rules of the EU's passport-free Schengen zone, if one Schengen member red-flags a name in its border control system, all the other Schengen countries are obliged to keep that person out.

Hermitage had in any case said the Kratov prosecution was an attempt to scapegoat a junior official so that high-level figures involved in the conspiracy could get off the hook.

It is currently focusing its energies on a money laundering probe in Cyprus, where Cypriot banks allegedly helped the Magnitsky conspirators to move around €23 million of the stolen tax money out of Russia.

But Putin's recent announcement - at an EU-Russia summit just before Christmas - that he is willing to contribute to an international bailout for Nicosia has caused concerns the Russian money will be used to quash the Cypriot enquiry.