This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an important state visit to
Israel, where, understandably, the issues of Iran and Syria were at the fore.
The case and cause of Sergei Magnitsky were not on the
Admittedly, Sergei Magnitsky is not a household name in Israel,
let alone on the Israeli foreign policy radar screen. But his story raises
significant questions about the culture of corruption and impunity in Russia,
its flawed judiciary and the ruling regime’s abuse of the rule of
Magnitsky was a tax lawyer who uncovered the largest tax fraud in
Russian history and paid for it with his life. He blew the whistle on widespread
government corruption, involving senior officials from six Russian
The very officials against whom he testified then arrested
and detained him, beginning a nightmare in which he was thrown into a prison
cell without bail or trial, and systematically tortured for one year in an
attempt to force him to retract his testimony.
Despite the physical and
psychological pain Magnitsky endured from his captors, he refused to perjure
himself, even as his health deteriorated.
Denied medical care for the
last six months of his detention, he died in excruciating pain at the age of 37,
having developed a severe pancreatic condition while being held in the Butyrka
prison – a notorious Czaristera jail in Moscow that that also held Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn and Raoul Wallenberg.
While Magnitsky’s death has fueled
international outrage – including condemnations from US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague – inside Russia the
corrupt government officials responsible have never been brought to justice. In
fact, they have even been rewarded for their criminality. Indeed, several of the
officials responsible for Sergei’s death have been granted top government awards
for their “expert investigative work.”
The Wall Street Journal
Magnitsky’s death as a “slow assassination.” The Moscow Public Oversight
Committee called it a “murder to conceal a fraud.”
watchdog Transparency International posthumously awarded Magnitsky its
prestigious Integrity Award, stating that “Sergei Magnitsky did what to most
people seems impossible: battled as a lone individual against the power of an
entire state. He believed in the rule of law and integrity, and died for his
belief. Magnitsky, his heroic fight and the ideals he stood for must never be
Condemnations from the European Union and European
parliaments continue, as legislatures contemplate additional actions. On
Tuesday, the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed a bill
named after Magnitsky, which would ban officials allegedly involved in
Magnitsky’s death from entering the US, and impose restrictions on their
financial activities inside the country.
Regrettably, the first foreign
policy statement made by Putin after his election was to reject these findings
of fact – and conclusions of law – even from the human rights community in
Russia. Indeed, he issued an Executive Order as follows: “Hereby I instruct to
carry out active work to prevent the introduction of unilateral extraterritorial
sanctions by the USA against Russian legal entities and individuals,” a clear
reference to the Magnitsky case and sanctions that have resulted from it in the
US, EU and elsewhere – and have which been proposed in other jurisdictions,
including in Canada.
One might well ask, what is the Israeli connection
to all this? While the issue is largely unknown in Israel, it should not slip
under the radar screen. Indeed, the Knesset – like other democratic parliaments
in the US and Europe – should take the requisite steps to encourage Russian
respect for the rule of law, and justice for Magnitsky.
First, Israel –
and other countries that have yet to act – should join with the European Union,
Canada and the United States in bringing awareness and action to this case and
cause – and to international efforts to date. As the great Soviet dissident
Andrei Sakharov once said to me: “I do not know what will help the cause of
human rights; I do know it will not be helped by silence.”
“naming and shaming” process to identify the perpetrators involved must
continue. US Sen. Benjamin Cardin – and the US Helsinki Commission – as well as
UK and European parliamentarians – have released a list of 60 senior Russian
officials and related documentation detailing their responsibility.
ongoing impunity – and indeed rewarding – of Russian officials is as scandalous
as it is shocking.
Third, the Knesset might consider holding hearings on
this case, and – following the lead of the US Senate committee this week –
consider adopting individual sanctions against those involved, through visa
restrictions and asset freezes. The fact that there have been no consequences
for any senior Russian officials who were part of this heinous web of corruption
resulting in murder is simply unacceptable.
Finally, the most important
action is that which must be taken by Russia itself – to hold the perpetrators
to account. A comprehensive and transparent inquiry so as to bring the
perpetrators to justice and to promote adherence to international standards of
due process and the rule of law should be the goal of every nation, including
Canada, the US and Israel, and the EU.
Tragically, Sergei Magnitsky is
but the latest in a list of Russian heroes who lost their lives standing up for
principle and truth. We can do no less than stand up for him.The writer
is a Canadian Member of Parliament and a former minister of justice and
attorney- general of Canada. He has a long history of defending political
prisoners in the former Soviet Union and Russia, and recently introduced
legislation titled “An Act to Condemn Corruption and Impunity in Russia in the
Case and Death of Sergei Magnitsky.”