Hermitage Capital Management was the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Then in 2005, it all went wrong. CEO William Browder was banned from the country on what he says was a pretext. Two years later, 50 police officers from the Moscow Interior Ministry raided Hermitage’s offices and those of its lawyers. The police took corporate documents and seals. Those same instruments were allegedly used in 2008 to fraudulently obtain $230 million that the Hermitage Fund companies had paid in taxes two years earlier.
In a YouTube video posted last year, Browder accused officials of complicity in the looting of his fund’s assets. He also wrote about the November 16, 2009 death of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Moscow pre-trial detention center. The story appeared last December in Foreign Policy Magazine.
Magnitsky was one of the few lawyers connected with Hermitage who didn’t leave Russia or go into hiding. Instead, after discovering the apparent massive tax fraud, he fought. That landed him in jail. Eleven months later, after being deinied family visits and medical care, he died in custody at age 37. His jailers first said he ruptured his abdominal membrane; then they said it was a heart attack. Officials refused his family’s requests for an independent autopsy.
The more Sergei complained, the more the pressure increased. He was moved to cells where sewage would spew up from the hole in the floor that served as the toilet. He was put in cells with no glass in the windows to protect the inmates from the frigid Russian weather. The prison authorities denied him any opportunity to shower, or simply access hot water. Worst of all they denied him any visits from his wife or mother, or even the possibility to speak to his two young children on the telephone for the 11 months he was in detention, which must have been truly heartbreaking for a man so committed to his family.
Now collegues and friends of Magnitsky have produced a video about his death. We heard directly from one of them. They believe they’re in danger and we won’t disclose identities. But the man who contacted us explained the idea behind the video:
Information about the officers [who accused and arrested Sergei] started coming in shortly after Sergei’s death from all over the place. Much of the information came from people I had never heard of but who had had bad run-ins with the same officers. So a group of people who knew Sergei got the idea of doing a movie like Browder had done for Hermitage a year earlier. . . We had people on the streets of Moscow photographing apartment buildings, we had people checking documents to see if info was genuine. . . .
Then when the first two movies were finished we realized that there was just far too much info for movies and we needed to create a website to tell the whole story and to put all the documents related to Sergei’s case, the budget thefts he discovered, and the officer’s illicit wealth and past crimes on-line where everyone could see them.
As for just who all these people [who helped create the video] are, I can’t name names. I promised everyone who contributed to this effort that I would not name the people helping. At some point some of these people may choose to come forward.