European nations could begin imposing tough sanctions on Russia for its failure to investigate the suspicious death of a whistleblowing lawyer, who was exposing official corruption.
The body which advises the Council of Europe has said European nations should adopt “targeted sanctions” against individuals involved in the death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, unless immediate steps are taken by Russia to investigate his death. Human rights campaigners have greeted the recommendation as a key victory.
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Possible sanctions may include more visa bans and the freezing of accounts "if the competent authorities in Russia fail to respond adequately to its demands within a reasonable period of time," the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
The resolution approved on Tuesday, named 'Refusing impunity for the killers of Sergei Magnitsky', urged the Russian authorities to fully investigate the circumstances and background of Magnitsky’s death, and the possible criminal responsibility of all officials involved.
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PACE does not have the power to enact the sanctions, only recommend that European member states uphold them. Parliamentarians described themselves as "appalled" by Magnitsky’s death in pre-trial detention in Moscow in 2009, and by the fact that none of the persons responsible have yet been punished.
Magnitsky spent almost a year in pre-trial detention in increasingly harsh conditions and in deteriorating health, and was beaten with rubber batons on the evening of his death, they said.
Magnitsky was the lawyer of Bill Browder, a British hedge fund manager who invested millions in Russian companies via his Hermitage Capital Management. But in 2005 Russian authorities blacklisted Browder as a "threat to national
security" after he complained about corruption at Gazprom and Surgutneftegas, revoking his visa in 2005 and raiding his offices in 2007.
The pair also publicised an alleged fraud scandal where more than £140m was taken from Russian taxpayers by corrupt officials. Browder was expelled from the country, but Magnitsky stayed in Russia and was arrested. Magnitsky is believed to have been tortured and denied medical aid, dying in police custody three years ago. Doctors who found him described his body as lying in a pool of his own urine, his arms covered in bruises.
Browder, who was convicted of tax evasion in absentia alongside the dead Magnitsky, has accused Moscow officials, and of orchestrating his friend's death and lobbied hard for Europe to introduce sanctions against those involved.
On Tuesday, Browder called the PACE report "a significant victory". He told HuffPost UK the report "on a
line by line basis completely destroys every aspect of the Russian government's position on what happened to Sergei Magnitsky".
Several of the Russian delegates said that it was Browder himself, not Russian authorities, who was behind Magnitsky's imprisonment and death.
Russia says the PACE debate contained many inaccuracies, arguing Magnitsky was an ordinary accountant, not a human rights activist. One, Leonid Slutsky, called it an attempt to defame Russia.
"I can see why the Russian delegates had such a hysterical reaction," Browder told HuffPost UK. "The
report states that many different branches of the Russian government were involved in a colossal cover-up of a murder and an enormous financial crime."
In July, the Home Office barred 60 Russian nationals linked to the case from travelling to the UK. The US has approved a new law, the Magnitsky Act, that bans anyone allegedly implicated in Magnitsky's death from entering their territory. Browder told HuffPost UK the report "goes a long way towards getting US style Magnitsky sanctions in Europe" and will "make it a lot easier to impose sanctions".
Amnesty International called the trial of Browder and Magnitsky, the first where a dead defendant had been tried, “a whole new chapter in Russia’s worsening human rights record” and a “sinister attempt to deflect attention from those who committed the crimes he exposed”.