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19th Jan 2019

EUobserver receives human rights prize

  • Magnitsky award winners in London on Monday (Photo: Anna Aleksandra Koj)

EUobserver journalist Andrew Rettman on Monday (16 November), in London, received the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Award for European coverage of the case.

Magnitsky was a Russian auditor who was killed in prison in 2009 after exposing a $240 million tax scam involving high-level officials.

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  • Rettman: Honest judges more important than revolutionaries

His employer at the time, British hedge fund manager Bill Browder, launched an international campaign to bring his killers to justice.

It saw the US, in 2012, pass the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, prompting the State Department to impose visa bans and asset freezes on at least 18 people involved in the plot.

Browder also campaigned for parallel EU sanctions. He demonstrated the killers used banks in EU countries to launder stolen money and frequently holiday in European cities.

Some funds were frozen by individual jurisdictions. But despite several EU Parliament and national parliament resolutions, the EU didn’t take collective action to this day.

The 2015 Magnitsky awards is the first edition of what is to be an annual event.

Speaking at the ceremony in Westminster, Rettman said: “Sergei Magnitsky stands out for the kind of qualities which often appear all-too small: moral clarity; patience; tenacity; humility.”

“The message of the Magnitsky story is that no country can ever be great, or a responsible neighbour, or a credible partner in a common cause, if it tramples its own people’s fundamental rights.”

“Countries like Russia need honest judges as much as, if not more than, they need revolutionaries.”

The other eight winners of the 2015 awards include: Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal group in the EU Parliament; Jim McGovern, a US Congressman; Irwin Cotler, a Canadian former attorney general; investigative journalist group OCCRP; and, posthumously, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was shot in Moscow in March.

The event was attended by Magnitsky’s son and widow, as well as by Nemtsov’s daughter, Zhanna, who collected the prize in her late father’s name.

Other guests included Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of Nemtsov’s associates, who is recovering after being poisoned in July, and Mikheil Khodorkovsky, an oligarch-turned-reformer, who spent 10 years in prison in Russia before moving to London.

Oleg Navalny

For his part, Verhofstadt promised to put pressure on the EU to “take action” on Oleg Navalny, the brother of Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who was jailed last year on dubious charges.

Navalny's associates describe the move as a “new policy of hostage-taking against the opposition.”

Meanwhile, McGovern, who was instrumental in passing the Magnitsky Act in the US, urged European governments to follow suit.

“There are too many people in government who think their job is just to keep things calm: ‘We have a relationship with [Russian leader] Putin, let’s not rock the boat’,” he said.

"Sometimes you have to act just because it's the right thing to do."

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former justice minister in Germany, said: “I tried, but unfortunately without success, to pass a Magnitsky Act also in Germany.”

Authentic hero

Cotler, who in the past gave legal advice to prominent prisoners of conscience, such as Nelson Mandela, gave tribute to Browder for popularising the cause of Magnitsky, whom he called “an authentic human rights hero - a person of uncommon courage, integrity, dignity.”

Chris Bryant, an MP from the Labour Party, the main opposition party in the UK, noted that London and Washington are, following the Paris attack, more open to working with Moscow against Islamic State.

But he “pledged” to hold British PM David Cameron “to account” on his promise to take a tough line with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

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