Russian president bans tax crime suspects' jailing

AP News
Posted: Dec 29, 2009 8:26 AM

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a bill banning the jailing of people suspected of tax crimes and has fired another senior prison official following the death in custody of a tax lawyer in November.

Medvedev, who has advocated more lenient punishment for economic crimes, signed a law banning the jailing of people under suspicion of tax crimes and allowing those convicted of a first tax offense to be fined without being held criminally liable, the Kremlin said in a statement Tuesday.

In a separate decree, the president fired Alexander Piskunov, deputy head of the Federal Penitentiary Service.

Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, 37, died last month after pancreatitis he developed while in custody went untreated. His death triggered a wave of criticism of Russian authorities within Russia and abroad.

Medvedev has since fired 20 senior Federal Penitentiary Service officials, including the Moscow prisons chief and the head of the jail where Magnitsky spent his last months. Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov acknowledged last week that the firings were spurred by Magnitsky's death.

Magnitsky spent nearly a year in jail after being arrested on tax-evasion charges linked to his work with 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.

An independent prison watchdog on Monday presented a report saying that Magnitsky had been subjected to "physical and psychological pressure" and at times endured conditions that could be described as "torturous."

The legislation signed by Medvedev also envisages that from now on all tax crimes should be investigated by the Prosecutor General's Office rather than the Interior Ministry. The Interior Ministry was in charge of Magnitsky's case.