It started with a young man named Sergei Magnitsky.
In the early 2000s, Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer living in Moscow, working for a firm called Hermitage Capital Management. Hermitage was run by Bill Browder – an American-British financier who had turned the firm into one of the largest investment advisers in Russia, with over $4 billion invested in Russian stocks at its height. Life was pretty good. The Soviet Union had fallen not long before, and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose tumultuous attempts to shift Russia from communism to capitalism allowed oligarchs and robber barons to accumulate power, had been replaced by a disciplined and business-friendly new leader: Vladimir Putin. There was reason for optimism about what the future might hold.
But over time, Hermitage began doing research on the Russian companies they were involved with, and quickly discovered deep-seated corruption. In the course of a few years, they uncovered wide-scale corporate theft at companies like Gazprom – a Russian gas company partly owned by the state, whose management outright stole oil and gas reserves in the late 1990s. Browder and Hermitage began publicizing their findings and pointing fingers.
In 2006, after ten years of business deals in Russia, Browder was suddenly blacklisted by the Russian government and denied entry to the country. He fled to London. And shortly afterwards, Russian Interior Ministry officials raided his Moscow office and stole confidential corporate documents that they used to falsely re-register Hermitage capital and steal $230 million that Hermitage had paid the state in taxes a year earlier.
It was a brazen and blatant crime. Sergei Magnitsky, serving as Browder’s lawyer, filed complaints against every Russian law enforcement agency in the country. Magnitsky testified before the Russian State Investigative Committee on his findings, systematically identifying the government officials who participated in the raid. These officials had stolen money that had been paid to the state, and Magnitsky demanded that the state hold them accountable for breaking the law.
But on November 24, 2008, the same officials Magnitsky had bravely named in court came for Magnitsky, charging him with the same crime that he had been investigating. They arrested him in his home. They handcuffed him in front of his wife and children. And they took him to an eight-bed cell that he shared with 14 other inmates. The lights were left on all day and all night; the windows were broken, with no heat and no toilet; and Magnitsky’s captors put constant pressure on him to withdraw his testimony and sign a statement confessing that he had stolen the $230 million himself.
Days crawled by. Then weeks. Then months. After six agonizing months of torture, Magnitsky got sick, lost 40 pounds, and had to be scheduled for a critical surgery. In August 2009, a week before the surgery was supposed to take place, he was moved instead to Butyrka – a maximum security prison with no medical facilities at all. Every day for three more months, Magnitsky and his lawyers pleaded for medical attention, and every day they were ignored. Magnitsky’s jailers continued to demand that Magnitsky sign a false confession admitting to the $230 million theft. Still, Magnitsky refused. Finally, in critical condition, Magnitsky was transferred to another prison for medical treatment – but when he arrived, already desperately ill and in severe pain, he was chained to a bed in an isolation cell. Eight riot guards entered the room and bludgeoned him with rubber batons.
On November 16, 2009, he died on his cell floor.
Everyone has different ways of dealing with confinement. In the 358 days of his detainment, Magnitsky – ever the professional – wrote over 400 legal complaints that detailed his experience, including the names of culpable parties, and passed them on to his lawyer and Russian law enforcement agencies. These memos comprise one of the most well-documented cases of Russian human rights abuse in last 35 years.
In the years since Magnitsky’s death, Bill Browder – his former client – has spent nearly every waking moment fighting for some measure of justice. Largely through his tireless efforts, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012, punishing the Russian officials who played a role in Magnitsky’s death by freezing their U.S. assets and barring them from the United States. In In 2014, the European Parliament voted for sanctions against 30 Russians allegedly complicit in the Magnitsky case. And earlier this month, Canada unanimously passed its own version of the Magnitsky Act, freezing assets and banning visas of officials in Russia and other nations guilty of human rights violations.
International corruption sometimes feels like a nebulous crime. It often involves a tangled web of interests funneling money from one dark corner to another, transferring huge sums and harming nameless victims. But Sergei Magnitsky isn’t nameless, and his case isn’t vague or complicated. He is one of the millions of real victims of corruption around the world. And in order to honor the bravery of people like him and to protect countless others, it is vital that we as a nation and as an international community continue to stand up for the rule of law. By passing bipartisan legislation like the Magnitsky act, we are sending a message around the world that we will not condone corrupt activities, or accept retaliation against the people who expose them. We will not allow the powerful few to impose their will. And we will not allow good people like Sergei Magnitsky to be taken from us ever again.
These are not political objectives or partisan goals. Instead, they are bedrock principles that speak to our most basic values and echo our highest ideals: equality, fairness, and justice for all. These are the ideas for which people like Sergei Magnitsky have struggled, fought, and too often died. And it is only if all nations are committed to these efforts that we can we build a global community worthy of their sacrifice.
This week, I was honored to speak to Bill Browder, who continues to seek justice for Sergei Magnitsky. We talked about how a kid from a Communist family became one of the most successful capitalists in the world; about the business of international corruption; and about how the Putin regime will end.
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