On July 5 the Russian Human Rights Council published its report on the now infamous—and mysterious—death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. An attorney for the Moscow-based American law firm Firestone Duncan, he represented Hermitage Capital, which was at the time the largest Western hedge fund in Russia.
Magnitsky died while in custody awaiting trial for a fabricated tax evasion charge. He was jailed after he accused Russian officials of fraudulently obtaining $230 million in tax rebates from the Russian Treasury using a sophisticated swindle. These were the same officials who prosecuted Hermitage and barred its owner, Bill Browder, from returning to Russia for reasons the state refused to reveal.
The Presidential Human Rights Council accuses the investigators, the jailers, and the prison doctors of malicious negligence at the very least in Magnitsky’s death, but the report indicates that the affair is more akin to murder. The report asserts that Magnitsky was “mistreated” and denied medical attention, especially in the time immediately preceding his death:
“Before his death, Magnitsky was completely deprived of medical help. Medications his family bought for him, were not delivered. Additionally, there are grounds to suspect that Magnitsky’s death was the result of a beating.
“His relatives afterward found that he had broken fingers and bruises on his body. Moreover, there is no medical record for the last hour of his life,” the report said.
President Dmitry Medvedev, who claims to make human rights a priority, said Magnitsky’s death was caused by a “crime,” and that this is an unacceptable episode of inhuman cruelty and state repression. Unfortunately, no one is paying attention: The Ministry of Interior, which supervises the police; the security services; and the Prosecutor General’s office ignored Medvedev. Moreover, Magnitsky’s investigators early this year got medals and were promoted. So much for President Barack Obama’s “reset policy.”
This and other cases require moral leadership on the part of the United States, which President Obama’s “reset” policy all but precludes. As Heritage’s Ariel Cohen and his co-author Donald Jensen wrote :
In order for the U.S. to be in a stronger position than it is today, the White House needs to shift from seeking to “please the Russians” to a more vigorous promotion of its values that pressures Moscow to “reset” its policies concerning human rights, democratization, and good governance and to distance itself from rogue states. Key levers in this effort include denying visas to corrupt Russian officials and examining their banking practices and acquisitions. The U.S. should also target police and prosecutors who fabricate evidence and judges who rubber stamp convictions. This is what the bipartisan S. 1039 “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act,” co-sponsored by Senators John McCain (R–AZ), Mark Kirk (R–IL), Joseph Lieberman (I–CT), and Ben Cardin (D–MD), aims to achieve.
What seems to be missing is the cumulative will of the Obama Administration to take a stand on moral issues, which are corroding economic and political life in the Russian Federation today. Involving moral principles in foreign policy, including in relations with Russia, is not just necessary to maintain respect—it is the American way.
Anton Altman is a research volunteer at The Heritage Foundation.