The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List

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WORLD APRIL 15, 2013

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List Should the U.S. ban Russians implicated in Sergei Magnitsky's death?

On Friday, the State Department, in conjunction with the Treasury Department, published a list of 18 people who are believed, “based on credible information,” to be in some way responsible for the gruesome death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009. (Over the weekend, Moscow responded with its own list, which includes David Addington, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Bush administration lawyer John Yoo.) Why the U.S. government cares enough about the death of a Russian corporate lawyer to publicly forbid these people from entering the U.S., and from owning any real estate or holding any bank accounts here, boils down to the lobbying efforts of one man, Bill Browder

Browder, whose grandfather Earl was the head of Communist Party USA, rescinded his American citizenship, moved to Britain and then to Moscow, where, in the gangland economy of the 1990s, he made a fortune. When Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Browder became his vocal champion, cheering when oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003. (The move killed all political aspirations in the business community.) In 2005, Browder was shut out of Russia for reasons that still remain unclear, though some observers speculate that it was because he violated the core economic principle of Putin’s Russia and refused to share his profits with Putin. 

Shortly afterwards, his lawyer, Magnitsky, began to uncover where Browder’s wealth was going. With the cooperation of the Russian Interior Ministry, tax inspectors, and courts, an organized crime ring was able to reappropriate $230 million dollars. Soon, people like Interior Ministry officials Artem Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov were living outsize lives, driving luxury vehicles and buying upscale real estate in Moscow, despite their meager official salaries of about $2,000 a month. So were the judges, like Olga Stepanova, who had approved a complex set of transfers of money to various shell companies.

Now, all those inspectors and interior ministry officials and judges find themselves on the list, as do the heads of prisons where Magnitsky spent the last year of his life—after Magnitsky uncovered the scheme, Interior Ministry inspectors had him thrown him in jail. There, screaming with pain, he died, at 37, of untreated pancreatitis. Dmitry Komnov, the head of Butyrka prison, where Magnitsky died handcuffed to a bed, battered, and in a pool of his own urine, is said to have ignored nearly 100 complaints from the prisoner. The judges who prolonged his arrest, as well as the prosecutors who pushed to prolong it, are also on the list.

Almost as soon as Magnitsky died, Browder launched an intensive PR campaign knowing that, despite their officious outrage, the Russian authorities would do nothing. Browder compiled a slick series of videos in English called “The Untouchables,” which detailed how Kuznetsov and Stepanova and Karpov stole his money and killed his lawyer.

Karpov, of course, sued Browder for libel. And here’s where it gets complicated: We don’t know for sure whether Karpov or Kuznetsov or Stepanova did any of the things outlined in “The Untouchables.” The Russian government is made up of many, many vicious men, but Browder is not the most trustworthy—or disinterested—person on the planet. None of his accusations have been proven in a court of a law, and these people, who probably own nothing in the U.S.—Russians prefer to keep their assets in Europe or Cyprus—have become international pariahs. That said, even if they did steal the money and kill Magnitsky, which is highly likely, there is no court in all of Russia which would consider the case, let alone find them guilty. The only person to be tried in all of this, tellingly, is Magnitsky.

The Magnitsky list raises all kinds of questions. Is it America’s place to dispense justice for crimes—alleged crimes—committed elsewhere? Can we publicly shame people who have not been convicted of anything and have no right to appeal the decision? Are these people scapegoats for a Congress that wanted to show itself a defender of human rights? Moreover, why are Congress and the State and Treasury departments all doing such heavy lifting—and further angering Moscow, whose cooperation we need on North Korea, Syria, and Iran—to avenge Browder, who pointedly rescinded his American citizenship and has no plans to ever get it back? 

On a purely intellectual level, I think that we should not be wrapped up in this—which has been Obama’s position. But on a gut level, having spent three years in Russia and observing how brutal and cynical and just gut-wrenchingly awful the Russian police and courts are, the list feels like a form of justice. These 18 people,1 though unconvicted, have become scapegoats for all the evil that the Russian government does to its people. Is it imperfect? Yes. Is it dubious and is it strange that the U.S. is getting involved? Oh, yes.

But, on a purely visceral level, it feels good to say this: The Russian system feels perfectly fine making scapegoats out of dozens of people caught up in the violence of the May 6 protests, violence that the government itself orchestrated in order to sacrifice some scapegoats, terrify the others, and stamp out burgeoning opposition to Putin. (A Russian journalist told me the prosecutors involved in these cases speak openly of the cases’ fabricated, political nature.) The system also feels fine committing all kinds of more minute but equally horrible, demeaning, violent acts on its citizens, day in, day out. So why should America open its banks and its borders to the system's enforcers?

The problem is, we’re playing by Russia’s rules. And we, thank god, have different rules. May it be ever so.

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PHOTO BY Firestone Duncan

1

One of whom is suspected of killing American journalist Paul Klebnikov.

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