US Congress Holds Hearing on Magnitsky

Sergei Magnitsky. Source: Kommersant.ruThe United States Human Rights Commission held a hearing today concerning the case of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died last November after being denied medical care in a Moscow pretrial detention facility while being held on trumped-up charges of tax evasion. His death sparked international outrage at the Russian penitentiary system. However, despite a presidential investigation and admissions by the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service that the agency was partially at fault, no charges have been filed.

William Browder, CEO of the investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital Management where Magnitsky had worked, said at the hearing that the lawyer’s persecution and death came as a direct result of his testimony against corrupt officials in the Russian Internal Ministry and other federal agencies. While detained, the CEO told the commission, Magnitsky was asked to alter his statements that officials had appropriated $230 million from the Russian government, and was tortured when he refused.

Browder asked the rights commission to support an effort by US Senator Benjamin Cardin to ban 60 Russian civil servants connected with Magnitsky’s death from obtaining visas to visit the United States. As Cardin put it, the officials “remain unpunished and in a position of power,” and said that the State Department reserves the right to deny a visa to anyone “engaging in, or benefiting from, corruption.”

Browder also asked that the United States Treasury freeze all assets kept in American banks by the civil servants in question, and asked that the United States work with other countries to do the same.

While many of the civil servants included in Cardin’s list are high-ranking officials, their names are largely unfamiliar to the Russian public. Among the most notable is Aleksei Anichin, head of the Internal Ministry’s Investigative Committee, as well as Moscow City Police Lieutenant Colonel Artem Kuzhetsov, who oversaw Magnitsky’s case.

In response, committee chair and US Representative Jim McGovern promised that he would introduce legislation that would not only ban the 60 officials from obtaining visas, but would also prohibit them from making US investments.

“One of the things that I would like to do is we’ll not only send a letter to Hilary Clinton, but I think we should introduce legislation and put those 60 people’s names down there and move it through the committee and make a formal recommendation from Congress, pass it on the floor, and say to the administration, ‘This is a consequence. You have to do this. Because if you don’t, nothing’s going to happen,’” said the congressman.

McGovern said that banning visas is the very least the United States should do in response to “serious human rights violations.” “People who commit murder,” he said, “and I think that’s what happened in that case, should not have the right to travel here and invest in business here and make money here and there should be a consequence. If we can’t get the consequence to happen in Russia, well then maybe there’s something we can do here [and] maybe other nations can do the same thing.”

Washington’s discussion of Magnitsky’s case has coincidentally coincided with the death of Russian businesswoman Vera Trifonova in a pretrial detention facility on April 30. Trifonova, who was detained in December on charges of fraud, was reportedly denied medical attention after refusing to plead guilty to investigators. Her lawyer contents that she was “purposefully destroyed” per request of a business partner who owed her a large sum of money. Since Trifonova died in the same facility as Magnitsky – Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina – her case is widely being seen as a repeat offense on the part of the penitentiary service.