Almost a Decade after his Death, Sergei Magnitsky Gets a Measure of Justice

The tombstone at the grave of lawyer Sergey Magnitsky at a cemetery in Moscow, Russia, on November 16, 2012.
The grave of lawyer Sergey Magnitsky at a cemetery in Moscow, Russia, on November 16, 2012. © Misha Japaridze/AP

Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax accountant, died nearly a decade ago in Moscow’a Butyrka Prison after having been detained for 358 days—just seven days short of the one-year period in which he could legally be held without formal charges. He was only 37-years-old. 

On Tuesday, August 27, the European Court of Human Rights, in a unanimous ruling of seven judges, including the Court’s Russian judge, ruled that Russia is responsible for Magnitsky’s death in prison, and had subjected him to “intentional” acts of violence...that amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.” 

The Open Society Justice Initiative, a program of the Open Society Foundations, brought the case to the European Court on behalf of Magnitsky’s mother and his widow. The judgment was based on the denial of medical treatment for Magnitsky for a life-threatening illness, and for a beating by prison guards just before he died.

The immediate practical consequences of the European Court’s decision are limited. If Russia follows its past practice, it will pay the modest sum of 34,000 euros ($38,000) that the Court awarded to Magnitsky’s wife and mother. Paying such judgments seems to be the price Russia feels it must accept to maintain its status as one of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, the sponsor of the European Court of Human Rights. On the other hand, Russia customarily fails to make reforms to meet the standards set forth in European Court decisions. Nor does it take steps to punish the officials found to have committed abuses.

But the larger significance of the decision by the European Court of Human Rights in the Magnitsky case is that it validates the underlying rationale for the laws adopted by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and some other countries to impose sanctions on designated individuals implicated in gross human rights abuses. For example, in 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and Canada has imposed sanctions on a number of Venezuelan and Sudanese officials, as well as on some 30 Russians.

Though Magnitsky was little known before his death, since then his name has been attached to laws adopted by a number of countries, including the United States, which have imposed travel and monetary sanctions on Russian officials linked to his death.

Indeed, in 2016, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed, additional legislation, that authorizes the United States to impose sanctions on corrupt government officials responsible for human rights abuses anywhere in the world.

Sergei Magnitsky was imprisoned as he was investigating a large tax fraud scheme, which appeared to involve extensive corruption by Russian officials. Russian authorities then accused him of helping to helping to perpetrate the fraud and detained him in advance of trial. After he died, against all prior practice, the Russian authorities went forward with a prosecution of Magnitsky when he was in no position to defend himself, in an effort to fix the blame on him for the fraud. The prosecution of Magnitsky after his death was one of the abuses criticized by the European Court of Human Rights.

It is a great shame, of course, that Sergei Magnitsky is unaware of the continuing consequences of the suffering he endured in Butyrka Prison. Yet it seems possible that the laws named for Magnitsky, supplemented now by the court decision holding the Russian authorities responsible for his mistreatment and death at an early age, could bring a measure of protection to some others who could find themselves in similar circumstances.

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