On Tuesday, the Canadian Parliament will hear testimony concerning the torture and tragic death in detention of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered the largest corporate tax fraud in Russian history, identified the senior Russian perpetrators, and paid for it with his life. His story is one of great moral courage and heroism, and his saga shines a spotlight on the pervasive culture of repression, corruption and impunity implicating senior government officials in Russia today.
Working as a tax attorney for Hermitage Capital Management in Moscow, an international investment fund founded by CEO William Browder — who will be the main witness at Parliamentary hearings today — Magnitsky blew the whistle on widespread Russian government corruption, involving officials from six senior Russian ministries.
The officials he testified against then arranged for his arrest and detention — and for the subsequent cover-up of their criminality — beginning a nightmare in which he was thrown into a prison cell without bail or trial, and systematically tortured for one year in an attempt to force him to retract his testimony.
Despite the intense physical and psychological pain Sergei Magnitsky endured at the hands of his captors, he refused to perjure himself, even as his health deteriorated. Denied medical care for the last six months of his detention, he died in excruciating circumstances at the age of 37, having developed a severe pancreatic condition while being held in the Butyrka prison, a notorious Czarist-era jail that also that also held Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Raoul Wallenberg.
William Browder — joined by Vladimir Kara-Murza, a member of the Russian pro-democracy movement — will be testifying against a backdrop of several dramatic developments in the Magnitsky case. First, the Russians — in a move that would make Kafka blush — have initiated a posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky, accusing him of the very crimes that they perpetrated, while intimidating and threatening reprisals against his family.
Second, on Friday, the US Senate joined the House of Representatives in approving travel bans and asset seizures for the 60 Russian officials whose complicity in the corruption, false imprisonment, murder, and subsequent cover-up, has been documented. Third, a Russian witness who recently conveyed evidence that the stolen assets had been laundered in Swiss accounts has mysteriously turned up dead, and an investigation has been launched by police in the U.K.
While Magnitsky’s death has fuelled international outrage — including condemnations from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague, the European Union, and others — the corrupt government officials responsible have never been brought to justice. In fact, within Russia, they have even been rewarded for their criminality, with several of them receiving top government awards for their “expert investigative work.”
The Wall Street Journal described Magnitsky’s death as a “slow assassination.” The Moscow Public Oversight Committee called it a “murder to conceal a fraud.” As President Dmitry Medvedev ordered an investigation, but three years after it began — while several low-level prison officials have been dismissed — not a single senior official directly responsible has been held accountable.
In an appropriate posthumous recognition of Magnitsky, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International awarded him its prestigious Integrity Award, stating that “Sergei Magnitsky did what to most people seems impossible: battled as a lone individual against the power of an entire state. He believed in the rule of law and integrity, and died for his belief. Magnitsky, his heroic fight, and the ideals he stood for, must never be forgotten.”
One might wonder: What is the Canadian connection to all this? While our legal recourse is limited — and the responsibility for bringing the perpetrators to justice lies essentially with the Russian authorities — there are things that we can, and indeed must, do to uphold the rule of law, to assure Russian human rights defenders that they are not alone, to stand in solidarity with those unjustly imprisoned, to protect Canadian business interests in Russia and, in particular, to remember and honour the heroic sacrifice of Sergei Magnitsky.
First, we must join Canadian awareness and action to international efforts, including taking the lead in the newly-formed “Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Interparliamentary Group.” As the great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov said to me: “I do not know what will help the cause of human rights; I do know it will not be helped by silence.”
Second, the “naming and shaming” process identifying the perpetrators involved must engage Canada as it has the US and other countries. To that end, I have tabled in Parliament a private member’s bill entitled the Condemnation of Russian Corruption Act, and I will be forwarding a binder with the related documentary evidence detailing the complicity of Russian officials. The ongoing impunity — and indeed rewarding — of Russian officials is as scandalous as it is shocking.
Third, Parliament must continue to express our condemnation of the events in this case. In that regard, a motion has been adopted by the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights expressing our outrage at the corruption and impunity, and calling upon the Canadian government to take appropriate steps in this regard. Further action may well be forthcoming after today’s Parliamentary hearing.
Fourth, the government of Canada should impose visa restrictions and asset freezes on the Russian officials involved. The fact that there has been no consequence for anyone who was part of this heinous web of corruption resulting in murder is simply unacceptable.
Fifth, we must call upon Russia to hold a comprehensive and transparent inquiry so as to bring the perpetrators to justice and to promote adherence to international standards of due process and the rule of law.
Tragically, Sergei Magnitsky is but the latest in a series of Russian heroes who lost their lives standing up for principle and truth. We can do no less than stand up for him.
Irwin Cotler is the Member of Parliament for Mount Royal and the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He has a long history of defending political prisoners in the former Soviet Union and Russia, and is now Chair of the newly-formed Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Interparliamentary Group.