Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was working for Bill Browder’s investment company when he uncovered the largest tax fraud in Russian history and exposed the misdeeds of senior functionaries in six ministries.
Mr. Magnitsky was also working for Mr. Browder, the American-born co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management, when he was thrown into a Moscow prison in November, 2008, by those same officials after testifying against them in the tax case.
So when the 37-year-old lawyer was refused treatment in prison for a pancreatic condition, subjected to repeated torture, and, according to his supporters, beaten to death by guards in the fall of 2009, Mr. Browder decided to devote much of his time to publicizing the case and securing justice for the man who had worked doggedly to bring the Russian corruption to light.
His efforts are starting to pay off. Last week, the U.S. Senate passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which denies visas and freezes the assets of Russians accused of human-rights violations. Now Mr. Browder is asking for a similar response from Canadian authorities.
“The case of Sergei Magnitsky really lays bare the criminality at the top of the Russian government,” he told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday. “The Russian government has refused to prosecute anybody involved. And so I have spent the last three years looking for other means of justice.”
Mr. Browder met earlier in the day with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who took binders of evidence on the 60 Russians accused by Mr. Browder of being complicit in Mr. Magnitsky’s death. The Minister told him there are existing statutes under which people can be banned from entering Canada, and Mr. Browder is now hopeful that the government will determine if they apply in these cases.
He also has a champion in Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who has tabled a private member’s bill which would make the people who played a role in the killing inadmissible to Canada.
But that bill is in a long queue and there is no certainty it will ever come before Parliament – which is why it is important for the government to take actions of its own, Mr. Cotler said. “If the Minister acts on the evidence we give him, that, in effect, is what my bill is asking for,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Russian embassy said it would not comment on what Canada might do in response to Mr. Browder’s efforts. But she pointed out that Russia has already retaliated against the U.S. action by introducing its own bill to freeze the assets of Americans suspected of mistreating Russians and to bar them from entering the country.
Hermitage Capital once held the largest foreign portfolio in Russia. That changed when Mr. Browder was declared “a threat to national security” in 2006 after exposing embezzlement and mismanagement at major Russian corporations. He pulled his people and his capital out of the country.
Mr. Magnitsky, who worked for the U.S. tax firm Firestone Duncan, was hired by Hermitage in 2007. He quickly discovered that three of Hermitage’s investment holding companies in Russia had been stolen by a new company owned by a convicted killer. Later, he found out that $230-million of taxes paid by Hermitage had been stolen by police and other officials.
In October, 2008, Mr. Magnitsky testified against Artem Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov, two officials with the Russian Interior Ministry. A month later, Mr. Kuznetsov sent three of his subordinates to arrest Mr. Magnitsky, who was locked up in the notorious Butyrka prison. While behind bars, the lawyer documented his torture but refused to sign a statement recanting his testimony.
“It wasn’t my money that was stolen, it was the Russian government’s money that was stolen,” Mr. Browder said. “Now we are at a point where there is essentially a diplomatic war of words going on between Russia and America. So Russia is ready to basically ruin its relationship with America to protect the 60 people who committed a crime against their own country. It tells you that this crime goes right up to the top.”