Moscow commission slams treatment of jailed lawyer

AP News
Posted: Dec 28, 2009 10:35 AM

An independent commission harshly criticized Russian authorities on Monday over the treatment of a lawyer who fought official corruption and died in prison.

Sergei Magnitsky was subjected to "physical and psychological pressure" and at times endured conditions that could be described as "torturous," according to a report by the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, a new prison watchdog.

Magnitsky, 37, died last month after pancreatitis he developed while in custody went untreated.

He was arrested in November 2008 on tax-evasion charges linked to his defense of Hermitage Capital Management, a multibillion-dollar fund headed by U.S.-born British investor William Browder. Hermitage has accused Interior Ministry officers of illegally taking over assets it managed and using them to fraudulently reclaim $230 million in taxes from the state.

The commission's 20-page report describes a systematic denial of medical care to Magnitsky and provides evidence contradicting investigators' claims that they were unaware of his illness.

The report names prison and other officials accused of sharing responsibility in his death, including a Moscow judge who, four days before Magnitsky died, refused to accept evidence of his serious medical condition and instead ruled that he should remain in custody pending trial.

Magnitsky's death received widespread and critical coverage, even in the state-controlled press.

President Dmitry Medvedev has since fired 20 Federal Penitentiary Service officials, including the Moscow prisons chief and the head of the jail where Magnitsky lawyer spent his last months. The service's deputy chief earlier acknowledged violations at the jail where he was held.

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Medvedev also has fired a senior Interior Ministry official whom Hermitage has accused of involvement in the alleged fraud scheme.

Valery Borshchyov, the chairman of the Moscow prison watchdog, said Monday that the commission has the president's support and he expects its conclusions to be heard.

The Moscow commission was formed in early 2009 under a law Medvedev signed the previous year mandating the creation of such independent commissions across Russia.

Medvedev, a former law professor, has vowed to improve conditions in Russia's chronically overcrowded prisons.