Russia: Amid trial delays, report urges Europe to move forward on Magnitsky Act

By Ruth Green

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As the first posthumous trial in modern Russian history continues to be plagued by setbacks, a report published by the European Parliamentary Assembly may be the strongest indication yet that Europe is getting closer to following the US and passing the Magnitsky Act.

The posthumous trial of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison cell in 2009, began in March in Moscow’s Tverskoi court (see Russia: historic Magnitsky trial brings corruption and rule of law into focus). At that point the trial had already been delayed for two months after Magnitsky’s family and the other defendant, the founder of Hermitage Capital and Magnitsky’s former boss, William Browder, refused to take part in the trial.

Sergei Magnitsky

The Russian authorities then appointed two lawyers, Nikolai Gerasimov and Kirill Goncharov from Law Office No5, to represent Magnitsky and Browder, respectively. However, the trial has continued to be wracked by delays as one of the state-appointed lawyers, Nikolai Gerasimov, also refused to participate. ‘I have not found a single declaration from relatives requesting the case be reopened,’ he said in court in April to Judge Igor Alisov. ‘Since my participation contradicts the opinion and position of the defendant's relatives, I suggest that I do not have the right to participate in the trial.’

The trial was then postponed until 21 June while the state appointed another lawyer to the case. However, proceedings were delayed again as the other lawyer, Goncharov, failed to turn up to court, allegedly due to illness.

The trial was set to resume on 26 June, but it is understood that proceedings may have been delayed again. It is unknown whether another lawyer has been appointed to represent Magnitsky. Hermitage Capital declined to comment on the case.

The ongoing delays come as a draft report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has called for the Russian authorities to put an end to the posthumous trial once and for all. The report for the Council of Europe, which is the body responsible for enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights, is the result of a six-month investigation into the Moscow authorities’ handling of the case, which saw the Russian lawyer thrown into prison after uncovering a US$230 million embezzlement scandal and die there before his case went to trial.

Denouncing the authorities’ investigations into what happened as ‘belated, sluggish and contradictory’, the 41-page report calls on Russia to fully investigate the circumstances surrounding Magnitsky’s death; to stop ‘persecuting’ company lawyers involved in the affair and to fully cooperate with other countries that that have opened criminal investigations into money-laundering following Magnitsky's revelations.

The report also revealed that Europol, the EU’s joint policy body, is conducting an investigation into Russian money laundering in EU banks. Although as Andreas Gross of PACE notes in the report, ‘international cooperation requires a minimum of mutual trust’, highlighting that he ‘received confirmation of [...] distrust in London’ earlier this year.

‘The Head of the UK Central Authority told me at our meeting in February 2013 that a request for legal cooperation received from Moscow in March 2012 was so "blatantly politically motivated" that the British authorities could not possibly accede to it,’ he said.

In the clearest indication yet that Europe might echo moves by the US Congress to introduce its own Magnitsky Act, the report also called on Russia to ‘hold to account those responsible for his death.’

The Magnitsky Act, which aims to ban Russian officials implicated in human rights violations, was signed into law in the US in December. In what many have described as a retaliation tactic (see Russia's rule of law: reforming or unravelling), the Russian authorities reacted by imposing an outright ban on Americans from adopting Russian children.

All the more interesting, earlier this month lawmakers in Russia passed a bill banning same-sex foreign couples from adopting Russian children.  The move, which contrasts sharply with the wave of pro-gay rights legislation being adopted in the US this month, signals a growing rift in US-Russian relations, which have been fraught with difficulties in recent months.

Although the move seems to be in line with Russian anti-gay sentiment — a March poll by independent Russian research organisation the Levada Center found that 85 per  cent of Russians opposed same-sex marriage —it also points to the wider crackdown on certain groups in Russian society.

Earlier this week the leader of St Petersburg-based gay rights group Vykhod (Coming Out) was fined 300,000 roubles for failing to register the organisation as a ‘foreign agent’, a practice that is now required by law for all non-governmental organisations in Russia if they receive any funding from abroad.

While the PACE report urges European countries to adopt the Magnitsky Act, it still awaits the vote by all member countries of the Council of Europe, which includes Russia, in September.