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Sergei Magnitsky

Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2012

It is a great pleasure to initiate this debate under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. Today I want to deal with the tragedy of a lawyer who worked closely with and for a British company—and its British chairman who is present in Westminster Hall—and who was done to death under the most atrocious circumstances. If a British lawyer working for an overseas firm had been arrested and so mistreated in the UK, all hell would break loose. This tragedy, however, happened in today’s Russia, and my charge is that the British Government have been singularly lax in dealing with the case, and lacking in adequate and necessary measures, not only to obtain justice but to send a clear message that putting to death a lawyer who represents British interests is not cost free. I do not claim a new policy of “advocatus Britannicus sum”, but the idea of civilisation and the rule of law, as well as the clear rules in the European convention on human rights to which Russia is a signatory, provide a special place for lawyers to represent their clients without facing prosecution or persecution unto death.

The details of the tragic death of Sergei Magnitsky are somewhat well known. Mr Magnitsky was the Moscow lawyer of British businessman William Browder. Mr Browder was born American and is the grandson of Earl Browder who was leader of the Communist party in the United States during the 1930s until he fell out with Stalin in 1945. Earl Browder’s grandson decided that capitalism was a better bet than communism, and over a decade beginning in the 1990s he built up the largest investment fund in Russia with billions of dollars of assets. However, not all went well for young Browder when he started publicly complaining about endemic corruption in Russian state companies, and in 2006, President Putin expelled him from Russia as a “threat to national security”. I would like to recommend to the House the remarkable documentary by Ms Norma Percy on the early Putin years. It will be shown on BBC 2 next Thursday and it illustrates the interface between politics, state bureaucracy and business.

Once the Putin regime decides that it does not like a business leader, it does not operate in half measures, and when it decides to turn on someone, it does so in spectacular fashion. After Browder’s expulsion, Putin’s tax police raided his offices in Moscow, seized all his company stamps and seals and stole his investment holding companies. Browder hired a bright young Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to try to stop this continuing state-sanctioned crime. Magnitsky investigated all the police actions and discovered that Browder’s companies had not only been stolen but had subsequently been used by the tax police to fraudulently refund from Government coffers the $230 million in taxes that Browder’s firm had paid in the previous year.

Magnitsky did what any lawyer would do on behalf of his client: he filed criminal complaints and testified on the involvement of the tax police in that enormous theft. That was a big mistake. He was subsequently arrested by the same tax police officers against whom he had testified, and blamed for the fraud himself. The scams that the Putinocracy arranges are not just for a few high-up people—everyone gets a cut. To shut him up, Magnitsky was flung into one of the roughest prisons in Russia and essentially held a hostage. Because the Russian state could not get at Mr Browder, who, as a British citizen was now safe in London with his family, they went for his lawyer to send a signal to other firms operating in Russia saying that when the tax police—or anyone else demanding a cut—knock at the door, co-operation is wiser than insisting on the rule of law.

Sergei Magnitsky was brutally treated in prison. He was tortured for 358 days by sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, the withholding of food and other torments left over from the Stalin era of torturing people whom the Kremlin did not like. After six months of such treatment he became extremely sick and was systematically denied any medical treatment. Eventually, Magnitsky’s beleaguered body began to give way and his condition became critical. Instead of sending him to the emergency room, his jailers put him in an isolation cell and allowed eight riot guards with rubber batons to beat him until he was dead. In November 2009, he was found lying in a pool of his own urine, dead on the cell floor at the age of 37.

Since then, the Russian Government have tried to cover up the cause of Magnitsky’s death, and a network of named officials in the tax, police, public prosecution and prison departments of the Russian state has been identified as part of that cover-up. Many of those involved have bought property abroad at prices that would be impossible on their declared salaries.

None of those facts are secret and they have been reported by journalists in Moscow, as have the details and names of those involved. The names have been listed by US Senators, Congressmen and Congresswomen, and by parliamentarians in some EU member states and in the European Parliament. The Magnitsky affair has also been the subject of a Council of Europe report. I, together with a number of right hon. and hon. Members, as well as Peers, have asked questions in Parliament and sought to highlight this assault on a respected British business, and show the terrible insight that the Magnitsky death gives us into how Russia operates. I had the luck to secure this debate, but that could have happened to any number of interested colleagues who support me on this affair, some of whom are present in the Chamber.

Vasily Aleksanyan was another young lawyer, and former general counsel to Yukos. In 2006, Mr Aleksanyan was arrested as part of the persecution of those involved in Yukos. He rapidly developed serious health conditions due to AIDS-related illnesses, but was denied antiretroviral treatment or chemotherapy in prison. In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights intervened and ordered Russian authorities to release Aleksanyan. The damage done to his body during his detention was too great, however, and he died last year as a direct result of the denial of treatment in jail.

That is the Magnitsky story. We must now turn to the Whitehall story and ask the Minister why the Foreign Office and Home Office have been so lax in taking up the Magnitsky case, and unwilling to take action against the named officials who were involved in theft via the tax system and the crime that Magnitsky sought to reveal. Will the Minister explain why some of the principals involved have been allowed to enter the UK without let or hindrance? Lieutenant Colonel Artem Kuznetsov from the Russian Interior Ministry was named in Magnitsky’s testimony as having orchestrated the theft of the Hermitage fund’s investment companies. Kuznetsov was also accused of perpetrating the $230 million tax fraud, as well as Magnitsky’s false arrest and persecution in detention. Public records—let me stress that—show that shortly after the $230 million was paid from the Russian Treasury, Kuznetsov’s family acquired $3 million worth of high-end apartments in Moscow, land plots outside the city and several luxury cars. Kuznetsov travelled to the UK twice in 2006.

Major Pavel Karpov, also from the Russian Interior Ministry, was named by Magnitsky as a close accomplice of Kuznetsov. Karpov initiated the criminal case against Mr Magnitsky that was used as a pretext for his false arrest. Public records in Russia—again, I stress that—show that Karpov’s family acquired $1.3 million in real estate assets and luxury cars following the completion of the fraud. Mr Karpov travelled to the UK four times between 2006 and 2007.

Dmitry Klyuev is the owner of Universal Savings bank through which the $230 million proceeds of the fraud were laundered. He was previously involved in a number of other tax-refund frauds, and in 2006 was convicted of a $1.6 billion fraud relating to the attempted theft of shares from Mikhailovsky GOK, a Russian iron ore company. Mr Klyuev also travelled to the United Kingdom at least five times in 2008. As I have said, all these names are on the record in Russia and on Capitol hill in Washington.

The following Government officials also played a role in the tax fraud that Magnitsky uncovered, his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, the persecution of Hermitage lawyers and executives, Magnitsky’s continued detention, the denial of medical care, torture, the denial of fair hearings, and finally his death in custody and the subsequent cover up: from the courts service, Judge Yelena Stashina, Judge Alexei Krivoruchko, Olga Egorova; from the Interior Ministry, Mr Oleg Silchenko, Oleg Urzhumtsev, Alexei Anichin, Oleg Logunov, Boris Kibis, General Major Tatiana Gerasimova; from the FSB—the Russian secret service and the successor to the KGB—Mr Viktor Voronin; from the tax offices, Olga Stepanova and Elena Khimina; from the prison services, Dmitri Komnov, Fikhet Tagiev and Yuri Kalinin; and from the General Prosecutor’s Office, Andrey Pechegin.

I ask the Minister to agree that those people should now be banned from entering the UK and their names circulated via Interpol and Europol. We need to sharpen up our diplomatic tools by declaring that the functionaries linked to Magnitsky’s death are unwelcome as visitors in Britain, thus copying what the US State Department has done under pressure from the US Congress.

The hon. Gentleman and I are probably about to say exactly the same thing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is not much point in just banning these people secretly behind closed doors? It is important that we say publicly that they are not welcome in this country.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that in addition to highlighting the tragic case before us, it is time for a British equivalent of the US Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would hold to account more generically foreign officials responsible for grotesque human rights abuses, through travel bans and asset freezes, and also that, as in the US, this a matter not just for the Executive, but for Members of this House and for Parliament?

I would support that. Perhaps some right hon. and hon. Members present might combine to ask the Backbench Business Committee for a longer debate, which might allow a slight pause for breath and more development of some of these themes. In particular, it would show the Russian authorities that this is a cross-party affair, with support from a considerable number of Members of both Houses.

I just want to add Canada to the list. It has also passed legislation in similar terms to the United States, so it is not just one country but many countries taking a strong stand against these appalling acts.

Poland and, I believe, the Netherlands have done so as well, but the addition of Canada, which is a great beacon of democracy and a Commonwealth country, is most welcome.

Yes, I believe that we should be doing what has been set out. We should not need to have a debate, because I hope that when the Minister replies, he will tell us that he fully accepts that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will put a statement, a note, in the Library tomorrow, with those names on it, saying that they are not welcome in the UK, and will pass the names on to Europol and Interpol. So far, the FCO has resisted that idea and has constantly sought to downplay the Magnitsky affair. The FCO position or, more accurately, the Whitehall position has been to shelter behind Russian bureaucracy.

On 15 November 2011, the Minister for Immigration finally replied to a letter that I sent him in August on the idea of a visa ban. That was a very discourteous gap between my letter and his reply. He wrote:

“The Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights presented to President Medvedev its report on Mr Magnitsky’s arrest and treatment”

and the

“Minister of the Interior has announced that its own internal investigation has not found any evidence of abuses by their officials”.

Well, that is a surprise—a bureaucracy defends its own people. Nevertheless,

“the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation chaired by Alexander Bastrykin”

would report by 24 November. To my knowledge, no such report was issued, and it is time for the FCO and Home Office to stop parroting Russian excuses for inaction and instead to follow the example of the United States, Canada and Poland and make it clear that those who stole the money that Magnitsky was investigating and then colluded in his death should not be given a permanent status of impunity by Whitehall fiat.

In an earlier reply to a parliamentary question from me on 13 July 2011, the Minister for Immigration—I welcome the Under-Secretary from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but this is as much a matter for the Home Office as it is for the FCO—confirmed the following:

“The Secretary of State for the Home Department…does have the power to exclude foreign nationals whose presence in the UK she judges would not be conducive to the public good”,

but he added that

“the duty of confidentiality means that the Government are unable to discuss the details of individual immigration cases.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 398W.]

I am sorry, but that will not do and it is not true. Her Majesty’s Government have regularly published the names of those to whom they deny visa entry. They include or included the TV cook Martha Stewart, the actor George Raft, the Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard and even a Nobel laureate, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who wrote:

“Death is the stone into which our oblivion hardens.”

It is the wish of the Russian authorities that Magnitsky’s death hardens into oblivion, but as another great writer who lived under communism, Milan Kundera, wrote:

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Let us not hear from the Minister today that the Government cannot publish the names of the people whom they ban. We should not allow Magnitsky to be forgotten. If the Home Office can publicly ban a cook, an actor, a loopy and a poet, surely it can ban those Russian officials named as associates in this massive theft, then the arrest and ill- treatment to the point of death of a lawyer representing a British citizen and his company.

Modern Russian apparatchiks like to visit, buy flats in and educate their children in London. If we name and shame and announce that they will lose those privileges if they break the law and allow a lawyer representing a British firm to die in agony for having defended his client’s interest, diplomatic pressure will be focused and sharp and will send a clear state-to-state signal that Russia cannot live above the law.

This is not just about Russia, however. We need to find ways of sending signals to mid-level officials in other authoritarian regimes that when they break the law, the doors of Britain are not easily open to them. A new approach is required to create a new tool of democratic diplomacy—namely, the precisely targeted travel ban that is made public so that all law-abiding state officials in Russia and elsewhere can see that corruption and collusion in murder are no longer crimes without sanction. That is what more and more decent Russian citizens want.

A further signal could be sent. Just as Mr Putin is not welcome on the streets of Moscow today, Britain should say that he is not welcome at the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics. In 1980, Mrs Thatcher had the guts to say no to a formal British endorsement of the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the Prime Minister wants to emulate the Iron Lady, he should say no to Mr Putin, who will use the London Olympics and the winter Olympics in two years’ time as events for self-promotion.

Of the 20 years since the end of communism, Russia spent the first decade being plundered by oligarchs and the second decade being robbed by state functionaries up to the highest level. It is time that Russia became a normal rule-of-law nation and its tax collectors levied taxes for the good of the people, not their own offshore bank accounts.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on securing this very important debate. The high-profile case of Sergei Magnitsky is of serious concern to Her Majesty’s Government and one in which there is a clear need for Russia to act. As the right hon. Gentleman made clear, Mr Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, went into pre-trial detention and died in state custody nearly a year later. Before his arrest, he had been working to uncover an alleged tax fraud against the Russian state by certain Russian law enforcement officials, a number of whom are alleged to have been involved in the investigation and detention of Mr Magnitsky.

In July 2011, the Russian presidential council on human rights published a report that found that Mr Magnitsky had been denied medical treatment and had been beaten while in detention, which directly contributed to his death, yet no one has been held to account by the Russian authorities. It is deeply disappointing that the Russian investigative committee appears to have made little progress. The publication of its findings in relation to Magnitsky’s death was postponed a number of times during 2011. They are currently due to be issued on 24 January. It is vital that the Russian authorities complete a thorough and transparent investigation into his death without further delay, as the case has wider implications for the rule of law and respect for human rights in Russia.

What confidence does the Minister have that the Russian authorities will be able to complete that kind of transparent, thorough and fair investigation in this case?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening. Of course, it is disappointing that the Russian investigative committee has made so little progress. It is also very disappointing that its report has been postponed on three occasions, but we are putting on all the pressure that we can and understand that the report will be issued on 24 January. We will keep up the pressure and look forward to publication on that date.

On HMG action, we have made our concerns very clear to the Russian Government. I should like to point out to the right hon. Member for Rotherham that the Prime Minister discussed this case with the President during his visit to Moscow in September, when he also outlined the need for confidence in the rule of law in Russia. This case is an unfortunate reminder that Mr Magnitsky’s death in pre-trial detention is not an isolated incident in Russia: approximately 50 to 60 people die in pre-trial detention facilities annually.

Our embassy in Moscow is providing financial support to the important work of the Social Partnership Foundation—a human rights non-governmental organisation—to look at the underlying causes of such cases and to help prevent further cases occurring.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Government subjecting Russian officials allegedly implicated in Magnitsky’s death to punitive measures in the form of visa bans. He will be aware that the immigration rules enable us to refuse a visa where information on an individual’s character, conduct or associations makes entry into the UK undesirable. However, the UK has a long established global practice, which has been followed by all recent Governments, including the one of which he was a member, of not commenting routinely on individual cases.

The right hon. Gentleman named a number of individuals whom he says were involved in the case. The Home Office and I will look into the cases of those individuals and will write to the right hon. Gentleman in due course.

I hope the word “routinely” was important in that sentence. The Minister for Immigration has, on several occasions, done a nudge, nudge, wink, wink to me to say, “Look, these people aren’t going to be coming into the country.” Frankly, though, we need more than that. If the Minister was prepared to provide a list of people who would not be welcome in this country, that would be a significant step forward.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It is not something on which I can give a guarantee this afternoon, but we will be in a better position to do so once the investigative committee has issued its report on 24 January.

There is nothing routine about a murder closely connected with a British enterprise. Although Mr Magnitsky was not a British citizen, this case really is on a par with the Litvinenko murder. The reason why these things keep happening is well known: these people are crossing the Russian state. If the Russian state does not want to be seen as a gangster, surely it should stop killing journalists, lawyers and dissidents.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point in his own inimitable way. I would not want anyone to have the impression that I was describing this case as routine, because obviously it is not. What I said was that the Government have a policy of not commenting routinely on individual cases. Obviously, this is an incredibly serious case, and I take on board what he has said.

On visa action taken by other countries, we are aware of media reports that the US has imposed sanctions on implicated officials and added them to a visa application watch list. Although Bills have been introduced in the US Congress and some other countries’ Parliaments, such as in the Netherlands and Canada, and motions have been passed in support of visa bans against Russian officials allegedly implicated in Mr Magnitsky’s death, we are not aware that those states have taken such action.

What we ultimately want—as all Members will agree, I believe—is the Russian Government to take the initiative in ensuring that justice is achieved in this case and in putting in place measures to prevent further such cases occurring. To that end, we are urging the Russian Government to conduct a full and transparent investigation into Mr Magnitsky’s death, and we continue to raise the case at the highest levels.

I am grateful to the Minister for what he says about the action that the Foreign Office is taking and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) for raising the issue in the first place. This case is of the utmost importance. Will the Minister act in concert with his European colleagues, so that all the nations of the European Union can show their anger at the way in which this lawyer has been treated and at the abuse and violation of human rights in Russia today?

I will certainly make sure that the hon. Gentleman’s strong comments are passed on to the Minister for Europe, so that he will speak to his European counterparts about this case at the next appropriate Council. He has already raised it with them, and similar action has been taken by other European countries. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman says, we will ensure that the case is raised again.

I should like to say a few words about the wider situation in Russia. The FCO’s annual human rights report makes it clear that we remain concerned about the rights afforded to Russian citizens and the strength of democracy. The Russian Government’s support for human rights often appears ambivalent. As President Medvedev has acknowledged, there is a pressing need to strengthen the rule of law in Russia. Legislative changes to reduce corruption represent a tentative step in the right direction. Reports of grave human rights abuses in the north Caucasus continue, and Russian human rights defenders and journalists remain at high risk. In some cases, though, we have seen some minor positive developments.

The state Duma parliamentary elections have been the key recent test of Russia’s democratic credentials. The conduct of those elections confirmed our concerns about human rights and democracy in Russia. Before the elections, NGOs and media organisations were routinely harassed. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe was permitted to observe the elections. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights concluded that they had been

“slanted in favour of the ruling party”.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said on 6 December, those conclusions underline the need for alleged electoral violations to be investigated rapidly and transparently and to ensure that all democratic institutions, including the media, civil society and opposition political groups, can operate freely in Russia.

I apologise for being slightly late. I very much appreciate this debate. Does the Minister acknowledge that it is not just the conduct of the elections but the whole functioning of democracy in Russia that prevents anyone who could challenge the system from getting nominated, never mind elected, as a presidential candidate? Will Her Majesty’s Government not make it clear that pluralism requires a much more open access to democracy than is currently available in Russia?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that strong point. In light of what he says, I can tell him that our wider work on human rights in Russia focuses on a number of key areas: democratic rights, including supporting free and fair elections, freedom of expression and freedom of the media; support for those seeking to resolve conflict in the north Caucasus; support for those seeking to increase monitoring, reporting and prosecution of human rights abuses; better support and protection for human rights defenders; support for those seeking a stronger rule of law with improved access to justice; and making progress towards greater equality and reduced discrimination.

I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. In early 2010, I visited Chechnya with Lord Judd to investigate the human rights situation. Will the Minister, in his discussions with Russian colleagues and his ministerial colleagues, impress upon the Russian Government that this is also an issue of security? It was clear from our trip to Chechnya that, without the proper upholding of human rights, the security situation and the terrorism issues faced there would not be resolved.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I agree with what she says, and we will ensure that that is taken up at the highest level.

In addition to the Magnitsky case, it is important that the Russian Government fully investigate the unresolved murders of journalists and human rights defenders. We remain concerned at the lack of progress in prosecuting those responsible for the 2009 murder of Natalya Estemirova. The murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya remains one of the most worrying cases of recent years. More than five years after her tragic death, the case still remains to be concluded. In October, Russian prosecutors announced new charges against suspects allegedly involved in organising her murder. The Prime Minister raised this case with President Medvedev during his recent visit to Moscow, calling on the Russian authorities to take further steps to bring all perpetrators to justice. There is a low success rate in investigating and prosecuting these crimes, thus perpetuating the perception of impunity, which undermines freedom of expression and human rights in Russia.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. He is eloquently making the case for the kind of legislation that the US wants to enact. He mentioned the Bill that has gone through Congress. It looks likely to become law and is unlikely to be vetoed by the President. Given the evidence that he has adduced here before us today, would he be open to that kind of Bill being introduced in the House of Commons?

If that Bill gets through Congress, we will certainly look at it very carefully. We will look at whether there are any appropriate lessons for this country, and we will consult parliamentary colleagues from all parts of the House. I cannot give any guarantees, but we need to watch very carefully to see whether the Bill becomes law in the US.

In conclusion, I hope that what I have covered today illustrates the Government’s concern and action, both on the wider issue of human rights in Russia and on the specific case of ensuring justice for Sergei Magnitsky. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said:

“Human rights are part of our national DNA and will be woven deeply into the decision-making processes of our foreign policy at every stage”.

That applies to our dealings with Russia as much as with any country. We will continue to engage Russia on human rights through bilateral contacts, including our annual human rights dialogue, which will take place in London this year—in the summer, we hope—as well as through multilateral channels, such as the EU, the UN and the Council of Europe.

I thank the right hon. Member for Rotherham for bringing Parliament’s attention to this issue and giving me the chance to explain the Government’s position. We will continue to push for the respect of human rights and the rule of law in Russia and achieving justice for Sergei Magnitsky.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.