21st Oct 2016

EU: Magnitsky verdict is 'disturbing' sign

  • The 37-year-old father of two died in appalling conditions in pre-trial detention (Photo: Hermitage Capital)

The EU's foreign service has said Russia's posthumous conviction of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky is a "disturbing" sign of lack of rule of law.

A Moscow court on Thursday (11 July) found the dead auditor guilty of tax fraud, reading out its verdict to an empty bench.

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It also sentenced Bill Browder, Magnitsky's former employer, an investment fund manager based in London, to nine years' jail in absentia on similar charges.

An EU spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, told EUobserver: "Magnitsky has been declared a criminal on the basis of unconvincing evidence, while neither the corruption scandal he helped to uncover nor the circumstances of his death have been clarified."

She added: "This is a revealing illustration of the state of the rule of law in Russia. It also gives a disturbing message to those who fight corruption in Russia."

She noted that the posthumous trial, the first in Russian history, was itself illegal because "the prosecution of a deceased person is not possible under Russian law unless requested by his or her family" for the purpose of rehabilitation.

But "the posthumous trial against Mr Magnitsky was initiated by the prosecutor's office against the will of Mr Magnitsky's family."

Magnitsky died in pre-trial detention in 2009 after contracting pancreatitis in appalling prison conditions.

He was denied medication and beaten with rubber batons the day of his death.

His incarceration came after he uncovered a $230 million embezzlement of the Russian treasury by a criminal outfit called "the Kluyev group" in league with up to 60 Russian officials.

For his part, Browder said on Thursday: "Today’s verdict will go down in history as one of the most shameful moments for Russia since the days of Joseph Stalin."

"When the Putin regime ultimately falls, future generations of Russians will be naming streets and monuments after Sergei Magnitsky," he added, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Browder successfully campaigned for the US to impose a travel ban on 18 of the Russian officials.

He is currently urging EU countries to follow suit.

The UK's immigration minister, Mark Harper, told the British parliament in April that it had become the first EU country to impose a travel ban on all 60 Russian officials.

He said, according to Hansard, the parliament's official journal: "The Home Office Special Cases Directorate is already aware of the individuals on the list and has taken the necessary measures to prevent them being issued visas for travel to the UK."

His statement was overlooked by media at the time.

But when British daily The Telegraph picked it up earlier this week, the British government made a u-turn in an apparent bid not to upset Moscow.

Harper wrote to Hansard apologising for his "error" and asking for a correction.

But under house rules, the official chronicle simply added his new statement as a footnote to the old one.

The new statement says: "We are aware that some individuals have been linked to the arrest, detention and death of Sergei Magnitsky. Any application for a visa to come to the UK will be considered on the individual merits of the case."

A YouGov poll out also this week found that 72 percent of British people would support a US-type "Magnitsky Act" - visa bans and asset freezes on foreign human rights abusers - in Britain.

With London a favourite spot for wealthy Russian expats, 70 percent said they think Russian organised crime is "a threat" to the UK.

The EU's Kocijancic noted: "The EU is raising the Magnitsky case with the Russian authorities at all levels and will continue to do so."

But the European External Action Service believes EU-level sanctions on Magnitsky-linked officials would do too much harm to EU-Russia relations.

"We don't believe it's the right thing to do. Unfortunately, Magnitsky is just one of many such cases in Russia. If we imposed sanctions every time we found evidence of human rights abuses, it would make relations completely unworkable," a senior EU source said.

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