-- Jason Bush is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own --
By Jason Bush
MOSCOW, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a high-level criminal probe into the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for the hedge fund Hermitage Capital, following a national and international outcry. The sad truth is that the Kremlin’s intervention is far too little, far too late. It must also investigate the serious fraud allegations that Magnitsky raised.
The probe is too late in the sense that it failed to save Magnitsky’s life. By waiting several days, Medvedev has also provided ample time for any suspects to cover their tracks. The intervention is also too late in that the Kremlin had several opportunities to act sooner but ignored grave concerns raised by international organizations.
In June, the International Bar Association wrote to Medvedev in person, urging the Russian President to look specifically into Magnitsky’s detention. In August, a 39-page report by the Council of Europe slammed the “persecution” of Hermitage’s lawyers, as well as the “inhuman and degrading conditions” in which Magnitsky was held.
The Kremlin’s probe is also far too little. Medvedev has ordered prosecutors to examine the circumstances surrounding Magnitsky’s death, which means that the investigation is likely to focus on allegations that he was denied medical attention.
However, the affair has serious ramifications that go well beyond the issue of penal reform. It raises much deeper concerns about the workings of the entire Russian state. According to Hermitage and Magnitsky’s former colleagues, he was arrested just one month after testifying against senior Interior Ministry officials. He had accused them of involvement in a convoluted scheme to defraud the Russian budget of $230 million.
The existence of this massive fraud has subsequently been confirmed by Russia’s own courts. The names of several suspects are now openly discussed in Russian newspapers. Yet the Kremlin maintains a conspicuous silence about the whole affair.
As long as it fails to act against the fraudsters, focusing instead on the narrow question of prison conditions, the people who may ultimately be responsible for Magnitsky’s ordeal will go unpunished. And investors will draw alarming conclusions about the rule of law in Russia. (Edited by Peter Thal Larsen and David Evans)