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Why You Should Read the European Court Ruling on Magnitsky

Case Highlights Sergei Magnitsky’s Kafkaesque Ordeal in Russia

The grave of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky is seen at a cemetery in Moscow, November 16, 2012.  © 2012 AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, File

Today, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Russia over the 2009 death of jailed whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

For many, the name Magnitsky has become synonymous with individual sanctions that states can impose for gross human rights violations in other countries.

But it is important to remember the individual human tragedy, the story of prolonged suffering and death of Sergei Magnitsky, that inspired the laws behind these sanction mechanisms. Magnitsky, a tax advisor, had alleged that various government officials were involved in a massive scheme that defrauded the Russian government of US$230 million in taxes. Russian authorities arrested Magnitsky in November 2008 and he died in prison, in pretrial detention, a year later, following acute pancreatitis and other serious medical problems for which he was not treated.

Today, almost 10 years after his death, the European Court ruled that Russia violated Magnitsky’s right to life by failing to hold an effective investigation into the alleged medical negligence that resulted in his death; that his detention conditions amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment; that repeated extensions of his detention was unjustified; and that his posthumous trial and conviction by a Russian court was inherently unfair. 

True, the judgment doesn’t break new ground in light of the court’s well-established case law on ill-treatment, death in custody, and lack of accountability for perpetrators in Russia.

But you should read it to see the summary of facts submitted by Magnitsky’s representatives about the alleged embezzlement and tax fraud, which at the time was possibly the largest tax fraud uncovered in Russia’s modern history.

You should read the judgment for its harrowing accounts of Magnitsky’s prolonged suffering and dying, and of the enraging mess that is the official account of his death.

You should read it to feel the truly Kafkaesque ordeal Magnitsky, his mother, spouse, and lawyers went through as they desperately tried to find recourse, get him the proper medical assistance, and, after his death, to secure some justice and accountability for his death.

And yet no one who had a role in his detention and suffering has been truly held accountable. 

Today’s European Court ruling finally gives some justice, and hopefully some relief, to Magnitsky’s loved ones. It also reminds us that beyond the politics of sanctions, there are human lives that have been torn apart, and people who should be held accountable for it.  

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