Death in Detention: Russia’s Prison Scandal

Nataliya Magnitskaya.jpg

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Images

Nataliya Magnitskaya, the mother of Sergei Magnitsky, holding a portrait of him and letters he sent to her from jail, Moscow, November 30, 2009

The horrors of Soviet prisons and labor camps were described vividly in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind, and later, by the Soviet dissident and former political prisoner Anatoly Marchenko, in his 1969 memoir, My Testimony. To judge from a disturbing new report about the tragic death of 37-year-old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in late November, Russia’s current penal system is almost as bad as it used to be.

As was the case under Stalin and his successors, the treatment of prisoners reflects the deeper problems of a politicized law enforcement system that routinely disregards human rights. Now, the Magnitsky case seems to have persuaded Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to begin to address these problems—though his powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

On December 28, the nongovernmental Public Oversight Commission—a Moscow-based organization mandated by Russian law in 2008 to monitor human rights in prisons—issued a twenty-page report about the treatment of Magnitsky, a former auditor and lawyer for the Firestone Duncan legal and accounting firm, whose clients included the international investment fund Hermitage Capital Management. As has been revealed by Hermitage executives, Magnitsky discovered in 2008 that Russian authorities had been engaged in a huge tax fraud. Officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) raided Hermitage’s offices in 2007, robbing the fund of three subsidiaries for which they then claimed $230 million in tax refunds. In November, 2008, shortly after testifying about this fraud, Magnitsky himself was arrested by the MVD on bogus charges of tax evasion.

According to the Public Oversight Commission report, Magnitsky was in good health at the time of his arrest. But less than five months after his incarceration at Matrosskaya Tishina began, he fell ill and ended up in the prison hospital, where he was given an ultrasound and diagnosed with gallstones and pancreatitis. The doctor ordered a follow-up ultrasound and possible surgery within a month. Disregarding these orders, prison officials transferred him in July 2009 to a maximum security facility, Butyrka Prison, which has no equipment for ultrasound or surgery. Magnitsky’s symptoms worsened. He developed excruciating pain in his abdomen, but his repeated pleas for medical attention were ignored. Not until November 16, 2009 did prison officials finally call an ambulance to take Magnitsky back to Matrosskaya Tishina for surgery, which might have resolved the problem had they acted on it immediately. By the time he arrived at Matrosskaya Tishina and was put in a prison cell, Magnitsky was flailing in agony and screaming that the authorities were trying to kill him. Yet instead of operating on him, the prison doctors called in psychiatrists, who diagnosed “psychosis” and ordered Magnitsky handcuffed. Within a couple of hours he was dead.

Magnitsky’s death was not an isolated case. According to Yevgenia Albats, editor of the independent weekly The New Times and one of Russia’s most respected independent journalists, the numbers of prisoners who die each year while awaiting trial run into the thousands. But the criminal neglect of Magnitsky by prison officials and doctors is only a part of the story. The fraud that Magnitsky had uncovered while working for Hermitage Capital implicated high officials in the Russian government, and the denial of medical treatment appears to have been a way to pressure him to change his earlier testimony against the MVD. According to Magnitsky, in a petition he reportedly sent from prison to the MVD, “Every time, when I repeatedly rejected these propositions by the investigators pushing me to be dishonest, the conditions of my detention become worse and worse.”

Albats produced evidence that the organizers of the tax scam uncovered by Magnitsky were employees of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, which has close ties to Putin. The officials in question, according to Albats, worked in the FSB’s Department K, which is charged with monitoring Russia’s credit and financial system and is headed by Major General Viktor Voronin, a long-time Putin associate from the St. Petersburg KGB. As Albats reported in her investigation of Magnitsky’s death, prison officials and MVD officers, as well as judges and members of the prosecutor’s office who ignored Magnitsky’s numerous complaints about his medical care and the appalling prison conditions, were getting their marching orders from the all-powerful FSB.

In early December, amid growing public outcry over Magnitsky’s death, President Dmitry Medvedev fired twenty senior officials in the Federal Prison Service, including the chief of Butyrka prison and the Moscow prisons chief, and ordered the Ministry of Justice, which oversees prisons, to investigate the case. On December 29, a day after the Public Commission’s report came out, Medvedev went higher up the ladder, dismissing the deputy chief of the Federal Prison Service, Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Piskunov. Medvedev also made it illegal to hold persons accused of tax and other financial crimes in pre-trial detention. This was an important step because those who are wrongly charged with financial malfeasance—a common occurrence when powerful people want to get rid of enemies—can languish in prison for a year, or even longer, if the court consents, without a trial.


Medvedev also moved against the MVD. In mid-December he fired the head of the agency’s tax crimes unit, Anatoly Mikhalkin, who in 2007 had ordered a subordinate to gather confidential information about Hermitage Capital’s holding companies. On December 24, Medvedev signed a decree mandating a 20 percent cut in MVD staff by January 2012 and calling for a series of organizational reforms in the agency.

Unfortunately, the main culprit in the Magnitsky affair, the FSB, has until now remained unscathed. Despite the dismissal of Putin’s close ally, Nikolai Patrushev, from his post as FSB chief in 2008 (apparently as a result of internecine feuds), this agency is filled with Putin appointees and continues to wield tremendous influence over the other law enforcement agencies, including the MVD. Medvedev deserves credit for taking some first steps toward cracking down on the terrible human rights abuses in Russia’s criminal justice system. But he does not have the power to openly challenge Putin’s FSB stronghold, even if he wanted to—and his larger intentions remain a matter of much speculation.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in