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Why Russia's Attempt to Convict a Dead Man Matters

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Today -- as though more evidence were required to demonstrate the upside-down state of human rights and the rule of law in Russia -- the country's prosecutors resume their efforts to convict a dead whistleblower of the very corruption he exposed. The posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky has properly been called "grim comedy" by a group of French legislators, and it is only the most recent -- and patently absurd -- element of the Russian government's strategy to cover up fraud, theft, and human rights violations committed by its own high-ranking officials.

Magnitsky uncovered the scheme -- which involved officials from six senior Russian ministries and deprived Russian taxpayers of over $230 million -- while working in Moscow as a tax attorney for Hermitage Capital Management, an international investment fund based in London. In 2008, he testified against the officials responsible, and was subsequently arrested and detained at their behest without bail or trial. He refused to recant even as his health deteriorated, he was denied medical treatment, and he died in jail in November 2009 at the age of 37. An investigation into his death -- and into allegations that he was badly beaten in prison -- was abruptly dropped this week.

Russian authorities continue to insist that he was complicit in the fraud, and they have begun inventing new crimes of which to accuse him in an attempt to further undermine his credibility. Magnitsky is now under posthumous investigation for illegally purchasing shares of Russian energy giant Gazprom, despite the fact the transaction was approved years ago by the Russian Federal Securities Commission. As well, Russian law enforcement revealed last month that it may hold him responsible for the country's 1998 default for supposedly interfering with a $4.8-billion transfer from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to the Central Bank of Russia. However, none of these transparently self-serving allegations change the truth that Sergei Magnitsky blew the whistle on widespread corruption among powerful people, and paid for it with his life. Indeed, given the ongoing legal proceedings and smear campaign, even that price now appears to be insufficient.

Magnitsky's trial has been repeatedly postponed, notably due to the refusal of his family and their lawyers to participate. Defence counsel has been appointed over the objections of his mother, who has called on all lawyers in Moscow to boycott the case. The presiding judge is the same Judge Alisov who, in 2011, cleared all Russian state employees of any involvement in the $230-million fraud, while assigning a significant portion of the blame to an unemployed ex-convict. As well, a witness who had been providing Swiss authorities with information that corroborated some of Magnitsky's accusations was found dead last fall in the U.K. under mysterious circumstances.

Most preposterous of all, a pretrial hearing was held in February to ensure that Magnitsky had been notified of the proceedings and had acknowledged as much in writing. As a spokesperson for Hermitage put it, "The only place where a notice to Sergei Mag­nit­sky can be deliv­ered is to his grave at the Pre­o­brazhen­skoye ceme­tery, and any writ­ten con­fir­ma­tion would need to be obtained from his corpse." Nevertheless, the trial will proceed.

As there is little hope of obtaining justice for Magnitsky within Russia, his former employer, Hermitage CEO Bill Browder, has spearheaded an international campaign to hold his abusers to account by freezing their assets and limiting their travel. His efforts resulted in the United States' Magnitsky Act, signed into law by President Obama late last year, and comparable measures are under consideration in Europe. I had the pleasure of hosting Mr. Browder in Ottawa last December, and I am hopeful that Canada will soon take similar steps; indeed, I have tabled a Private Member's Bill to this effect.

The Putin administration has responded to the American law with reciprocal legislation targeting Americans who supposedly violate the rights of Russians, as well as a ban on American adoptions of Russian children, a suspension of cooperation with the United States in the fight against drug trafficking, and the expulsion of the United States Agency for International Development. Moreover, the Russian government has embarked upon an aggressive public relations campaign attacking both Sergei Magnitsky and the international movement seeking justice on his behalf.

Rather than be intimidated by the Russian response, however, the international community should be buoyed by it. Indeed, the swiftness and scope of Russia's reaction to the Magnitsky Act make clear that this law -- and others like it -- can have a meaningful impact on Russian officials who deposit their ill-gotten funds in Western banks, send their children to Western schools, and vacation at Western resorts. By enacting such legislation, the U.S., Canada, and other like-minded countries impose consequences on Russian human rights violators that are tangible and serious, even as Russia's justice system descends into farce.

Russian Spies On Trial
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