Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died nearly four years ago in a Moscow pretrial detention facility under mysterious circumstances, has been convicted of fraud in a controversial case that has contributed to a deepening rift between the Kremlin and U.S. government.
The former head of the tax practice at Moscow’s
, Magnitsky ran afoul of Russian authorities when he attempted to expose what he said was a massive tax fraud perpetrated against his client, London-based hedge fund
Hermitage Capital Management
, by crooked bureaucrats employed by the Russian state’s tax office and interior ministry.
Firestone Duncan’s cofounder and managing partner, U.S. lawyer Jamison Firestone,
who himself fled Moscow for London in 2010
because of a fear that he might suffer a fate similar to Magnitsky's, expressed little surprise at Thursday's ruling.
“A fabricated case and illegal trial against a dead man who cannot defend himself makes it clear that the Russian government feels murder is justified in order to protect its corrupt officials,” Firestone told
The Am Law Daily via email. “It sends a clear message that those who fight government corruption can expect to be falsely imprisoned and killed with impunity.”
Hermitage, Firestone Duncan’s client, was cofounded by
, a British citizen and grandson of
, the former leader of the Communist Party in the United States. The hedge fund
drew the Kremlin’s ire nearly a decade ago
by publicly railing against what it claimed was rampant corruption at Russian companies. Hermitage, Browder, and Magnitsky soon found themselves targeted in a government inquiry focused on their business practices. While Browder ended up
leaving Russia for London in 2005
, Magnitsky was taken into custody in November 2008.
A year later Magnitsky was found dead in his jail cell at age 37, even though supporters claim he had filed hundreds of complaints about his treatment, including the alleged denial of medical care. The official cause of death was identified as heart failure and toxic shock. Magnitsky had suffered from pancreatitis and gallbladder disease during his confinement. Russian authorities have
cleared two doctors and prison officials
on charges related to his death.
With Magnitsky deceased, the trial judge declined to impose any sentence in connection with Thursday's conviction, and ordered no sanctions against his estate. Browder, tried in absentia as Magnitsky's codefendant, faces up to nine years in a Russian prison in the event he returns to the country. (In May, international police body
Interpol denied Russia’s request
to track Browder’s whereabouts.)
Over the past few years, he and his supporters have funded a minidocumentary—
ominously titled Russian Untouchables
—about the scheme they claim was hatched against Hermitage by members of the Russian state who are complicit in Magnitsky’s death.
Browder and Firestone also backed U.S. human rights legislation named in Magnitsky’s honor that has helped drive U.S.–Russia relations to their lowest point since the Cold War after it was
passed by Congress late last year
Among the U.S. citizens whose names appear on the Kremlin’s ledger: former Bush administration lawyers
, a onetime Holland & Knight partner, who were listed for allegedly authorizing torture and a system of indefinite detention for prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.
The Magnitsky Act's passage has had other repercussions for U.S. lawyers in Russia.
The Am Law Daily reported in May
on former Justice Department official and current Baker & McKenzie senior counsel Thomas Firestone being stopped and interrogated by Russian authorities as he tried to return to the country from a trip abroad through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Firestone, a former legal adviser to the U.S. embassy in Moscow who is not related to Jamie Firestone, had been based out of Baker & McKenzie’s office in the Russian capital. He was temporarily detained amid yet another
spying spat between Russia and the U.S.
, and subsequently relocated to Baker & McKenzie’s Washington, D.C., office after being ordered to leave Moscow.