David Cameron's trip to the Kremlin must address the Sergei Magnitsky case
12 September 2011
In diplomacy there is an unofficial statute of limitations on rows that poison state-to-state relations. November will see the fifth anniversary of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko by Russian agents in London. David Cameron will certainly raise the case when he goes to Moscow for his first trip to the Kremlin but equally certainly will have to swallow the Russian dismissal of the crime. But he will find it less easy to swerve around the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer employed by a British citizen and his London-based investment company. Magnitsky exposed the biggest tax swindle in Russian history, and was put to death by Russian officials for his pains.
The Magnitsky case is poised to return to Parliament as a private members' bill will push for 60 named Russian officials to be put on a visa ban by Britain with any assets they have in Britain frozen. In the United States, Washington has already imposed a similar travel ban on named Russians who took part in the process that led to Magnitsky being arrested, flung in prison and so harshly treated that he died in the manner that Solzhenitsyn described in his novels on the communist Gulag.
Magnitsky was employed by the American-born Bill Browder, now a British citizen. His grandfather, Earl Browder, was leader of the US Communist Party in wartime years until he was fired by Stalin for failing to toe the Kremlin line. After getting his Stanford MBA, the grandson went to Russia in 1990 and developed one of the most successful investment funds operating in the country.
But making money in Russia requires political approval and Browder refused to enter the world of corruption that Putin's economic model demands. Instead, he hired a leading tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to defend his interests in Moscow after Browder himself had prudently moved his office to London as he refused the pay-offs Russian officials demanded.
Magnitsky discovered that Russian police were involved in a $230m tax claim against Browder which they were diverting to bank accounts of corrupt officials. The lawyer had a name as an anti-corruption crusader but was not involved in politics or seeking to do anything except ensure Russian law was observed.
He was arrested in 2008, beaten in prison, denied medical treatment for pancreatitis and died in November 2009. Even Russia's Council for Human Rights, set up by President Dmitry Medvedev, has accused Russian Interior Ministry officials in connection with Magnitsky's death.
The Interior Ministry and the Kremlin have rejected demands for an investigation. But Magnitsky's widow and friends in Russia and his former boss in London have not given up. They have met opposition from government bureaucracy, especially in foreign ministries that dislike individual cases messing up diplomatic relations. The Democratic US Senator for Maryland, Ben Cardin, tried to enlist the State Department's help but was brushed aside. So he launched his own bill, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, and got Senator John McCain and 18 other senators to back it. Faced with the anger of the legislature, the US executive buckled and earlier this month Hillary Clinton listed 60 Russian officials linked to Magnitsky's death who now face a travel ban. The Dutch foreign minister refused to heed Dutch MPs when they asked for similar action. So the Dutch parliament voted by 150 to zero for a travel ban to be imposed. German and French MPs are looking at similar measures. FCO ministers in replies to me and other MPs have also pooh-poohed the idea of actually doing something to hold Russia to account over Magnitsky's death. So now there is a private member's bill which, alas, does not have the force of a US Senate's draft act, but which nonetheless signals parliamentary concern over FCO foot-dragging.
David Cameron could show leadership by agreeing the travel ban before he goes to the Kremlin so that Mr Putin understands that Britain does want to see the rule of law upheld and that employees of British firms should not be put to death. Putin's response to Britain's demand for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi in connection with Litvinenko's murder was to put Lugovoi in the Duma, which is an extension of the Kremlin, not an independent parliament. Mr Cameron will get no joy on the Litvinenko case. But he can and should take action on the Russians who put Sergei Magnitsky to death.