Why Europe Needs a Magnitsky Law

18 November 2013

By Martin Dewhirst

This article reviews: Why Europe needs a Magnitsky Law: Should the EU follow the US?, ed. Elena Servettaz, 2013, 300 pp. ISBN 978-2-9546298-0-3. (Available free online at www.magnitskybook.com)

Just over four years ago, on 16 November, 2009, a Moscow lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was killed in a pre-trial ‘investigative isolation facility’ (in Russian: SIZO) nearly a year after he had been arrested for exposing a $230 million tax refund fraud carried out by a number of fairly senior employees of the corrupt Russian state (one could hardly call any of them ‘civil servants’). Dozens of people die in SIZOs every year as a result of the appalling conditions and brutal mistreatment, despite the fact that they are officially regarded as innocent until proven guilty at the end of their trial. The SIZOs are run by the ‘Federal Service for the Implementation of Punishments’, and still in Russia the punishment starts well before the trial. ‘Not guilty’ verdicts are rare, and in many cases conditions for inmates in the ‘correctional colonies’ to which most of them are sentenced (there are just seven prisons in Russia, only for men) are at least a little less harsh than in the SIZOs.

None of the criminals whom Magnitsky accused of massive misappropriation has been punished, and some of them have even been awarded medals and promoted. In a further twist worthy of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka, Magnitsky was put on posthumous trial earlier this year and accused of the very crimes which he had accused these state employees of committing. An exceptionally shameless Russian bureaucrat, Konstantin Dolgov, claimed that this farce, at once medieval and postmodernist, was staged in order to give Magnitsky’s family the chance to clear his name (p. 186). This is as cynical as Putin’s despicable reaction to the U.S. list of Russian undesirables forbidden to enter America and use banking facilities there – he refused to allow any Americans at all to adopt Russian orphans, many of them disabled. What an insight this gives us into his mean and perverted character!

Could all this have gone on without the knowledge and approval of the 2009 Prime Minister and 2013 President of Russia, given that his notorious ‘vertical of power’ and preference for ‘hands-on control’ mean that he is at least morally responsible for Magnitsky’s death? He too, of course, is innocent until proven guilty, but ‘the balance of probabilities’ suggests that it is ‘more likely than not’ (p. 166) that he has a very serious case to answer. It seems almost certain that, sooner or later, alive or dead, Putin will be put on trial, formally or informally, and his alleged crimes, including his probable collaboration with professional crooks both before and after 2000, will be carefully examined. It would, of course, be a good idea to organise in the near future a ‘mock’ international tribunal of experts to assess Putin’s activities before he does even greater damage to his country and its people. Alas, not only the ‘United Russia’ political party is said to be full of swindlers and other criminals - so too, apparently, are the Presidential Administration and, it seems, the government…

This book contains over 50 contributions from North America, Russia, Belarus’ and Central and Western Europe by eminent individuals who explain why they think that a ban on the entry to Europe and a freeze on the bank accounts of a few of the Russian citizens on whom there is reasonable proof of illegal and immoral behaviour would help to reduce the power and influence of the mafia in the former USSR. Inevitably there is a great deal of repetition, and for those who haven’t the time to read the entire collection I would especially recommend the contributions by Irwin Cotler, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Andrey Tolokonnikov, Evgenia Chirikova, Geoffrey Robertson, Leonidas Donskis and Rebecca Schaeffer. The American list of Russian undesirables (it was high time to get personal) is ridiculously short – it should contain at least several hundred people, and although it could not, alas, include Putin (‘The Magnitsky Law does not, and in international law cannot, cover heads of State, ministers, diplomats and others who hold privileges and immunities.’ – p. 163), he should at least be treated with cool disapproval rather than the deference and pre-emptive cringing that are now so common, as cooperation with Russian society so easily turns into collaboration with the Russian state. Several misleading books about Putin have recently appeared in English; they lack psychological understanding of Putin’s character. Much more relevant is Brecht’s examination of the resistible rise of Arturo Ui, which shows the dangers of appeasing not only major dictators but also petty ones, albeit, in Putin’s case, in charge of a nuclear power. It should be clear by now that if one wants a decent future for Russia one has to be highly critical of Putin. One good side effect of the book edited by Elena Servettaz is the incidental revelation of the intellectual and political poverty and weakness of those who are NOT pressing for a Magnitsky Law in Europe. For instance: ‘the UK Minister for Europe, David Lidington, recently rejected a call for a Magnitsky Law made by five former secretaries of foreign affairs, on the disingenuous ground that the UK already bans human rights violators (it does not) and the ignorant ground that it was “unlikely to contribute to achieving justice” – evidently the Foreign Office made no enquiry of Magnitsky’s mother or wife, or of anyone who knows anything about human rights. The Financial Times, where journalists are much better informed than Mr Lidington and his Foreign Office apparatchiks (who tend to advise Ministers on the basis of their own wish for a quiet life) …’ (p. 167). Of course, this is an exaggeration and far from the whole truth, but it expresses the frustration of those who are worried that the longer we ‘let Putin get away with it’ the greater will be the price we and Russia will have to pay in the future.

Martin Dewhirst