April 22, 2010 / 6:44 PM / 9 years ago

Activists urge prosecution in Russian prison death

* New pressure for prosecution in lawyer Magnitsky’s death

* Authorities accused of seeking testimony through torture

By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW, April 22 (Reuters) - Leading human rights activists called on Thursday for the prosecution of Russian Interior Ministry officers over the death in jail last year of a lawyer for what was once Russia’s top equity fund, Hermitage.

The Moscow Helsinki Group said authorities subjected Sergei Magnitsky to conditions amounting to torture in a failed bid to force him to testify in their favour in a battle with Hermitage over tax fraud allegations.

“This was not a case of negligence,” Moscow Helsinki Group member Valery Borshchev said of the 37-year-old lawyer’s death in a Moscow jail last November. “It was the deliberate creation of torture conditions for Sergei Magnitsky with the specific goal of obtaining testimony that investigators needed.”

Interior Ministry and prosecutorial officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.

Magnitsky’s death spooked investors and set up a new test for President Dmitry Medvedev’s promise to reform Russia’s corruption-tainted justice system.

In October 2008, Magnitsky implicated two Interior Ministry officers in an alleged $230 million fraud involving the illegal seizure of Hermitage’s Russian investment holding companies to set up fake tax refunds.

Magnitsky was arrested weeks later and accused of involvement in alleged tax fraud by Hermitage. The arrest was carried out by three subordinates of Artyom Kuznetsov, one of the officers Magnitsky had implicated.

TORTURE ACCUSATION

The rights activists said Interior Ministry officers conspired to create desperate conditions for Magnitsky in jail and deny him medical help in hopes of prompting him to withdraw his testimony against them and to implicate himself and Browder.

“Sergei Magnitsky died from systematic torture,” Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the veteran human rights campaigner who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, wrote in a recent letter to the head of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office.

She asked federal prosecutors to consider a torture investigation into Interior Ministry officers including Kuznetsov and Oleg Silchenko, the lead investigator in the case against Magnitsky.

Medvedev fired several prison officials after Magnitsky’s death and later signed a law stipulating that tax evasion suspects should not be jailed.

But Alexeyeva asserted that the real culprits have avoided punishment. She said Magnitsky’s death was just one glaring symptom of widespread abuse of power by Russian bureaucrats and law enforcement officers seeking financial gain.

Browder said Magnitsky’s jail time included a stint in a four-person cell packed with eight inmates and a hole in the floor for a toilet. Speaking from Britain, he said Magnitsky never received adequate treatment for acute abdominal pain.

Hermitage was once the largest portfolio investor in Russia, but Browder fell out with the authorities. He was refused entry to Russia in 2005 on national security grounds, and Hermitage disposed of its Russia holdings. (Editing by Charles Dick)

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