Russian prosecutors Tuesday [June 8, 2010] denied that lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whose death in prison drew widespread condemnation, had been ill while in jail, although his supporters say he had long complained of a serious gallbladder condition.
The case attracted international attention after Mr. Magnitsky, who was subjected to steadily worsening conditions and denied medical treatment in prison, died in November while awaiting trial.
Although Mr. Magnitsky suffered from gallstones, his medical condition didn't preclude him from being kept in prison, said Oleg Logunov, the head of the Investigative Committee's legal department, in a rare official comment on the case, which has drawn an outcry from human-rights organizations.
Mr. Logunov said that Mr. Magnitsky, who was 37 years old, died of heart failure, brought on by poor conditions at the prison and a lack of qualified medical personnel, rather than any preexisting illness.
"He never complained about his heart," Mr. Logunov said. "This death was completely unexpected. It was a major blow for the prosecution. It was a human tragedy, in and of itself."
But Mr. Magnitsky's supporters, as well as an independent advisory commission on human rights in prison, said the lawyer was subjected to inhumane conditions and denied medical care in order to force him to testify falsely against his former employer, U.S.-born Bill Browder, chief executive officer of the Hermitage Fund.
"Sergei went to prison healthy," said Jamison Firestone, a managing partner at Firestone and Duncan, the law firm that Mr. Magnitsky worked for. "His conditions eventually were made torturous and unhealthy and eventually deadly. When you take a healthy man off the street, put him in a cell in the middle of the Russian winter with no heat, no hot water, and no glass in the window frames, when you do not even let him boil water so that it is uncontaminated, that person tends to get sick."
By June 2008, Mr. Magnitsky had developed pancreatitis and gall stones, conditions he didn't previously have, and had dropped 40 pounds in a matter of weeks, Mr. Firestone said. A scheduled operation was cancelled after the lawyer refused to recant testimony against police officials, and he was sent to Butyrka prison, which doesn't have medical facilities, Mr. Firestone said.
Four months later, Mr. Magnitsky was dead.
Messrs. Magnitsky and Browder, who had his Russian visa revoked in 2005 on national security grounds, were both charged with tax evasion and fraud. They denied those allegations, which came after they publicly accused investigators and other senior officials of stealing $234 million in taxes paid by Hermitage Fund to the Russian government.
The authorities have repeatedly denied those accusations. Mr. Logunov said the government had every right to jail the lawyer, who was also charged with scheming to avoid paying taxes.
"There is a crime there, and the crime is pretty obvious," Mr. Logunov said. "Magnitsky worked out a scheme in order to avoid paying taxes. This scheme was found in his computer. We have all the documents."
In April, human-rights advocates accused the authorities of dragging their feet in the investigation into Mr. Magnitsky's death. The probe had been ordered by President Dmitry Medvedev.
Although several top prison officials have been removed, advocates say that at least one has been reassigned to another job, and prosecutors have so far only categorized the case as one of possible negligence.
U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin in April asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to cancel visa privileges for 60 Russian officials accused of ties to Mr. Magnitsky's death.
(from WSJ, June 8, 2010)