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19th Sep 2020

Feature

Widow's plea as EU diplomats debate Magnitsky Act

  • Father-of-two killed after confronting corrupt Russian officials and mobsters (Photo: Dmitry Rozhkov)

Ten years ago, on 16 November 2009 in a jail cell in Moscow, guards strapped Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year old father of two, to a bench and lashed him with rubber batons.

He was already suffering from pancreatitis, contracted due to the appalling conditions in the Butyrka prison where he had languished for almost a year, and he died later the same day.

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  • Natalia Magnitskaya, her son, and Bill Browder (r) at the EU parliament in Brussels (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

His 'offence' was to have alerted Russian authorities to the fact an organised crime group, which included senior Russian officials, had embezzled €200m of tax payments from a British hedge fund he had worked for, Hermitage Capital.

The tax money could have been spent on Russian pensioners, hospital patients, or school children.

But instead, it was laundered in Europe's most prestigious banks and spent on luxury real estate, diamonds, designer clothes, and yacht charters in multiple EU states.

Some of the Russian officials who stole it got promotions.

They have been travelling back and forth on holidays to Cyprus, France, Germany, Italy, and the UK.

In 2016, some of them even went to a film premiere in the European Parliament in the EU capital.

Two months ago, they also turned a nice profit of more than €100,000 when they sold an apartment they had bought in the Belgian city of Antwerp.

Diplomats meeting in the EU Council in Brussels on Wednesday (13 November) held the latest round of talks on whether they and other human rights abusers like them from around the world should, in future, face EU visa bans and asset freezes to stop them getting away with murder.

EU ambassadors on the council's political and security committee will shortly hold another round of talks.

And the Netherlands, which first proposed the new sanctions regime, hopes to get the unanimity it needs from the 28 EU states for the sanctions to go ahead "in the coming months", a Dutch spokesperson told EUobserver on Wednesday.

"There seems to be broad support ... but there are still some outstanding issues and questions," the spokesperson added, after Hungary, one of the most pro-Russian EU states, had earlier said no such sanctions were needed.

The Dutch foreign minister, Stef Blok, has also "discussed this topic several times" at EU foreign ministers' meetings and "bilaterally with all EU colleagues", the Dutch spokesperson noted.

"In the past year, various occasions occurred where an EU human rights sanctions regime was mentioned in discussions among EU member states to be of immediate use," the spokesperson said.

"The murder of [Jamal] Khashoggi [a Saudi Arabian journalist] was a case in point ... [it] would also have been useful for the EU to address the situation [war crimes] in Sudan", the spokesperson added.

'Evil expands'

Ordinary people do not get to have a say in EU diplomats' behind-closed-doors deliberations.

But when asked by EUobserver what she would say if she had the floor in the political and security committee in the EU Council, Magnitsky's widow, Natalia Magnitskaya, told EUobserver: "The EU Magnitsky Act is not simply for Sergei".

"This piece of legislation will aim to prevent the growing number of new victims of rogue regimes, which commit similar crimes. If evil is not defeated, it tends to expand indefinitely", she said.

"I believe it's a matter of time - sooner or later Sergei's executioners will be brought to justice," she added.

It remains to be seen if her faith in EU diplomacy is well placed.

The EU foreign service, which is in charge of drafting the new human rights measures, has shown little interest in public advocacy on their behalf.

"I can only tell you that discussions are currently ongoing in the council ... as this is ongoing, we cannot really comment," its spokesperson told this website on Wednesday.

And the outgoing EU foreign relations chief, Federica Mogherini, "had been consistently hostile" to an EU Magnitsky Act, according to Bill Browder, the Hermitage Capital CEO, who used to be Magnitsky's employer.

Even if the Dutch do get the unanimity they need, it remains to be seen whether Magnitsky's killers will ever be put on EU blacklists or the new sanctions will even mention his name.

Blok, the Dutch minister, has spoken of crimes in the Middle East, Africa, and the Far East, but not in Russia, in times when some EU states, such as France, are seeking a detente with the Kremlin.

Blok's diplomats are also pushing for a neutral title - "global human rights sanctions" - for the legislation in case pointing a finger at Moscow upsets EU friends of Russia, such as Cyprus, Hungary, and Italy.

But that kind of caution did not stop Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the UK, as well as Canada and the US, which already have national-level "Magnitsky Acts", from calling a spade a spade.

Nordic red line

And the eight members of the Nordic Council, a regional club which includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland, are preparing to follow suit.

"In November 2019, it is 10 years since Sergei Magnitsky died in his cell," the Conservative political group, the council's third largest one, noted in a recent proposal.

"Nordic governments ought to work in parallel for the introduction of national Magnitsky legislation in all Nordic countries, in the event that Magnitsky legislation is not implemented in the EU," it added.

The idea was "well-received" when the Council met in Stockholm in October, Hans Wallmark, a Swedish MP behind the Nordic project, told EUobserver on Wednesday.

Magnitsky's name was "a symbol" of the Russian regime's "ruthlessness", he said.

"It's important to show we don't accept the kind of abuse we saw when he was tortured and killed in Moscow. It's important to show, especially to the Russian Federation, that Europe has red lines," he added.

The council is to vote on Wallmark's proposal in autumn and even though its resolutions are non-binding, they create pressure for national legislatures to act.

And Nordic Magnitsky laws would, in turn, generate pressure for EU-level action, Wallmark noted.

"There is a groundswell of support among the general public, member state governments, and parliamentarians to finally do something on the EU Magnitsky Act, and that may ultimately be what makes a difference," Hermitage Capital's Browder said.

"Sergei's public legacy is highly important - until real justice is served, his legacy will serve as punishment for his executioners," Natalia Magnitskaya said.

Opinion

The Magnitsky Act - and its name

It is disappointing that so many MEPs in the Socialist and Green group caved in to Russian interests, in fear of challenging a plutocratic regime, by saying 'no' to naming the Magnitsky legislation by its rightful name: Magnitsky.

EUobserver receives human rights prize

EUobserver journalist Andrew Rettman has received the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Award for coverage of the deteriorating situation in Russia.

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