Sergei Magnitsky: sanctions in the name of justice


It is nearly two years since Sergei Magnitsky died a shocking death in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina prison. Since then, an imaginative campaign by friends and colleagues has kept his case in the international spotlight. For Zoya Svetova, the recent decision by US authorities to impose visa sanctions against sixty Russian officials may prove the campaign's most crucial success yet.

Zoya Svetova
16 August 2011

On 6 August, President Barack Obama signed an order imposing travel restrictions on some sixty Russian officials associated with the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky, who had been working for the Hermitage Capital investment fund, died in controversial circumstances in the Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre on 16 November 2009. Compiled by US Democratic senator Benjamin Cardin approximately one year ago, the “Magnitsky list” includes prosecutors, judges, a Moscow police chief, tax inspectors, employees and doctors who were working in the Moscow detention centres where Magnitsky spent his final hours, and where he was condemned to an agonizing death without a corresponding sentence.  


The decision by the US to implement a visa ban against 60 officials implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky has put an obvious strain on US-Russianrelations (Photo: White House) 

The idea of a “blacklist” came from friends and colleagues of Sergey Magnitsky, who have, from the day of his death, looked to uncover the truth of what happened. They have come to the conclusion that Sergei was killed, intentionally, while in prison. Sergei, it seems, had been a difficult detainee. He had refused to implicate others and give the evidence that the investigators had demanded. More importantly, he had also uncovered an outrageous corruption scheme, involving not only Interior Ministry officers, but also leading government officials (and he refused to keep quiet about it). The scale of the crime was staggering: in the course of the scam, some 5.4 billion roubles ($230million) were misappropriated from the Russian federal budget, disguised as an elaborate tax refund. Once received, the money was transferred to foreign banks. 

>“Judging by the angry and outraged reaction of the Russian side, it could be said that the initiators of the “Magnitsky blacklist” had achieved exactly what they were looking for. They had, after all, touched the most sensitive strings of the crooked officials, the holiest of all holy places: dirty money, obtained by dishonest means and kept in foreign bank accounts.”

The death of Sergei Magnitsky has had repercussions the world over. In Russia, too, the case attracted an unusual level of attention. It was only under enormous public pressure that the Federal Investigative Committee was compelled to open a criminal case into the lawyer’s death. Even then, more than two years passed before anyone was charged in connection with the lawyer’s death. On numerous occasions, Magnitsky’s former colleagues have stated they do not believe that the Investigative Committee is interested in finding those truly responsible for his death. Their understandable response was to expand their blacklist to include all potentially guilty parties: those who had an interest in putting an end to Magnitsky and his whistleblowing activity; and those who may have been directly involved in a corruption scheme that removed billions of roubles from the federal budget. 

Judging by the angry and outraged reaction of the Russian side, it could be said that the initiators of the “Magnitsky blacklist” have achieved exactly what they were looking for. They have, after all, touched the most sensitive strings of the crooked officials, the holiest of all holy places: dirty money, obtained by dishonest means and kept in foreign bank accounts. Not to mention the fact that the very inclusion of governmental officials in a no-go list for the USA — and one may only presume, Europe will follow — was not the best thing when it came to images and reputations. When the threat looked to become really serious, i.e. when US senators began to talk in terms of the travel bans being extended to include a “Khodorkovsky list” and a “Politkovsky list”, a sense of real panic descended on the Kremlin. 

We already know the deputy head of the Presidential Administration Vladislav Surkov dashed to the US to hold private conversations with officials of the US administration, in an attempt to persuade them against putting their lot in with the Magnitsky blacklists. The immediate result of this endeavour was that the US State Department imposed visa sanctions on the 60 officials without waiting for the bill to be confirmed by Congress, which had pushed for a wider list. Moscow at that point began to talk about adopting retaliatory measures, for example by enacting a new black list for American officials, who would be denied entry to the US, and whose accounts would be frozen in Russian banks.

“Whatever may come of these retaliatory moves, the very fact that sixty Russian officials have became personae non gratae in the US is an extremely welcome precedent.”

These declarations provoked Homeric laughter from all those who were following the affair. Quite obviously, American citizens are unlikely to be holding much money in Russian banks. Indeed, when pressed, Russian Foreign Ministry officials were unable to say who exactly might fall into this retaliatory list of banned Americans. Many took this to mean that the Russian position was all bluff, and that, in fact, no such list had been drafted or was intended. 


No doctor from Matrosskaya Tishina prison has yet been charged in connection with Magnitsky's death

Regardless, and whatever may come of these retaliatory moves, the very fact that sixty Russian officials have became personae non gratae in the US is an extremely welcome precedent. Campaigners hope that Europe will not be far behind in adopting similar steps. And whatever the Russian authorities may say, it was precisely the appearance of threatening blacklists that pushed the investigative organs to bring charges against doctors who were responsible for Magnitsky’s heath while he was in Butyrka prison. True, so far just two doctors have been charged, and they are most likely scapegoats, designed to steer attention away from Alexandra Gaus, prison doctor in the Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre. Gaus, it is known, refused Magnitsky medical assistance in the very last hours of his life. One can only assume the reason that she was not charged is because she knows too much about how the Hermitage Capital Lawyer died in his cell that fateful day in November 2009.  

But this is, of course, another story. A story of how investigators have tried to cover up the true reasons of Magnitsky’s death; a story of how the authorities are attempting to hang everything on the unprofessionalism of the prison doctors; and a story of how the system has looked to dismiss any idea that Magnitsky may have been deliberately killed.  

Friends and colleagues of the Hermitage Capital lawyer continue to exert pressure. They continue to find and present new evidence about how the Russian officials on the “Magnitsky list” have been involved crimes of corruption and how they were privy to his death. Perhaps, sooner rather than later, and thanks to their dogged determination, we will find out the truth of what really happened.  

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