On Monday, November 19, Russian media reported that it is “highly likely” American-born British financier Bill Browder poisoned his former employee, Russian accountant Sergei Magnitsky.
Russian prosecutors were quoted as saying there was evidence that Magnitsky and three other men linked to Browder’s business – Oktay Gasanov, Valery Kurochkin and Sergey Korobeinikov – may have died as a result of poisoning. They revealed no evidence publicly.
“One of the lines of inquiry is [Magnitsky] was poisoned with chemical agents used for sabotage. These substances contain an aluminum compound. They caused acute liver failure that looked like death by natural causes," Mikhail Alexandrov, a spokesman for the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office said without evidence. "When he received from Magnitsky a false statement of provocative nature, Browder was interested in his death more than anybody else."
Alexandrov’s claim that Browder had the most to benefit from Magnistky’s death is not new. Russian businessman Dmitry Klyuev, who has also been implicated in Magnitsky’s death, has also attempted to deflect blame to Browder.
Regarding the alleged poisoning, Alexandrov said "forensic examination” of biological samples taken from the four men made it possible to conclude that they “had symptoms of chronic poisoning with toxic, soluble inorganic substances introduced into their bodies."
Alexandrov said no detailed toxicological analysis had thus far been carried out, claiming toxicological research into aluminum compounds have been carried out for several decades only at research centers in a few countries, including the United States, France and Italy.
"Such compounds can be made only in special laboratories," he claimed.
Further details of the nature of these compounds purportedly found nine years after Magnitsky’s death in a Russian prison were not provided.
When reached for comment, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it had “no information” about "aluminum compounds," but otherwise did not comment on statements made by officials of OPCW States Parties.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not comment.
In any case, Russian officials apparently did not charge Browder with alleged poisoning of those four individuals.
According to the Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI), a new criminal case has been opened against Browder only on suspicion of organizing a criminal network.
A report by RT stated that that charge falls under the auspices of “a UN convention,” without detailing which UN convention, adding: “This implies extradition of a criminal even if Russia does not have a bilateral treaty on the matter with a country he is arrested in.”
Moscow’s efforts to boost its chances of extraditing Browder follow reports that Alexander Prokopchuk, a former Russian Interior Ministry major-general, is in the running to become the new chief at the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).
In May, Browder was arrested in Madrid, Spain after Russia issued an international arrest warrant through Interpol.
He was later released after Spanish National Police recognized the “arrest warrant wasn’t valid.”
At the time, Browder told The Atlantic magazine that Russia had tried to issue six INTERPOL red notices for him, “all of them ultimately rejected as abusive.”
Browder was once considered the largest foreign investor in the Russian stock market and a supporter of Putin. He was first blacklisted from Russia in 2005 for being an alleged “threat to national security.” His fund, Hermitage, subsequently closed its Moscow operations. Browder later charged that a cabal of corrupt Russian officials, using materials seized during police raids, took possession of three Hermitage companies in Russia, after which the officials fraudulently claimed $230 million that Hermitage had paid in taxes. That tax refund, the largest in Russian history, was approved in under 24 hours and paid out the following day.
The investigation of those moves against Hermitage was spearheaded by Magnitsky, an auditor from the Moscow-based law firm Firestone Duncan. Hermitage would go on to file 35 complaints against those implicated in the fraud case.
But in January 2008, Magnitsky himself was arrested after arriving to provide evidence to the prosecutor overseeing that case.
Magnitsky would go on to spend 11 months in pre-trial detention, where he was beaten and denied medical care after developing a host of medical conditions due to inhumane treatment.
Mistreatment of Magnitsky
Amnesty International reported Magnitsky was “neglected” in Russian prison, and shortly before his death was transferred to a detention facility with a hospital, where he was “handcuffed and beaten with rubber batons” on the day he died.
The Russian record following Magnitsky is long and winding. This latest claim that Magnitsky was poisoned contradicts Russia’s previous claims regarding his death.
Russian authorities refused to release Magnitsky’s body for an independent autopsy, first claiming he died of a rupture to his abdominal membrane – which would have been consistent with pancreatitis, a condition Magnitsky developed in prison. As a result, authorities then claimed he died of a heart attack.
When Dmitri Kratov, the former head of the medical service at Butyrka Prison, was tried for negligence in Magnitsky’s death, President Putin said during a December 20, 2012 press conference, before that trial’s conclusion: “I do not know the details, but I am still aware that Mr Magnitsky died, died not from torture, no one tortured him, but from a heart attack.”
Kratov was acquitted on December 28, 2012.
But prior to his death, Alexandra Gaus, a surgeon at the Matrosskaya Tishina Detention Center, where Magnitsky was transferred before his death, confirmed that Magnitsky was in fact suffering from acute pancreatitis. Once his health started deteriorating rapidly, Magnitsky complained: “They will kill me here. I am innocent under this case, why did they bring me here?”
As a result, Gaus also diagnosed the dying man as suffering from “acute psychosis,” a condition which was later noted on his preliminary death certificate.
That document also stated he died from gall stones, pancreatitis, and potentially pancreatic necrosis and closed cerebral cranial injury. Mention of closed cerebral cranial injury would later be removed from that document without explanation.
A 2011 report from the Russian President’s Human Rights Council further found there was reasonable suspicion that Magnitsky’s death had been triggered by a beating.
In October 2012, Physicians for Human Rights prepared an expert report on the available medical evidence. The conclusions of that report were damning, that he was denied medical evaluations” and his eventual resuscitation was not timely and possibly peformed incorrectly.
“The neglect was calculated, deliberate and inhumane,” the physicians group’s report stated pointedly.
Twenty prison officials were reportedly sacked in relation to the case, with then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev firing Alexander Piskunov, deputy head of the Federal Penitentiary Service.
However, in March 2013, Russia’s Investigative Committee reversed the judgment, saying Magnitsky had not faced either “physical violence or torture,” adding: “A decision has been taken to end the criminal case because of the absence of a crime.”
Magnitsky’s “Crimes” and Western Sanctions
Several months later, Russia found Magnitsky guilty of tax evasion in the country’s first-ever posthumous trial. That case was organized by many of the officials that Magnitsky had exposed in the $230 million tax refund theft.
Amnesty international called the posthumous trial of Magnitsky “farcical” and “sinister.”
As a result of Magnitsky’s death, Browder successfully lobbied for the Magnitsky Act, the U.S. law that targets Russian officials implicated in human rights and corruption cases. In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed a global version of that bill, allowing foreign officials implicated in human rights abuses worldwide to be sanctioned.
Similar acts have been adopted by Britain, Canada and the Baltic states. This week, the Dutch Foreign Ministry was scheduled to submit a draft on an EU-wide Magnitsky bill, although it will not bear Magintsky’s name, reportedly due to political pressure.
Russia has sought Browder’s arrest on a number of charges, most recently convicting him in absentia on an alleged $79 million tax fraud scheme. He was also convicted in absentia of tax fraud in 2013.
Browder told Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year that Russia’s continued campaign against him, including his arrest in Spain this past May at Russia’s request, showed the “Magnitsky Act is working and we’ve found the Achilles’ heel of the Putin regime.”
And while the Kremlin has provided no evidence that could allow for a thorough scientific debunking of its Magnitsky poisoning conspiracy claim, available evidence clearly demonstrates that medical neglect, aggravated by torture and an “outright disregard for the well‐being of Mr. Magnitsky.”
We judge the Kremlin’s claim that Magnitsky was potentially poisoned on Browder's orders to be false.