What Really Killed Sergei Magnitsky?

Image: Sergei Magnitsky. VOA photo, public domain.

A controversial filmmaker suggests the mainstream answer may be wrong.

The Magnitsky Act—Behind the Scenes, a controversial new film about the death of Russian auditor Sergei Magnitsky, was shown on June 13 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The filmmaker, Andrei Nekrasov, was present, and the film was introduced by journalist Seymour Hersh. Nekrasov is known for his documentaries such as Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case, and Russian Lessons, about the Russo-Georgian War. He has frequently criticized the Russian government and has been targeted for his outspoken views. Hersh began the event by commending the Newseum for being willing to host the film, as it had been canceled in several European venues due to legal pressure from Magnitsky’s former employer William Browder (wanted in Russia for tax evasion, but now living in London) and Sergei Magnitsky’s family.

The generally accepted narrative of the Magnitsky affair is that lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was employed by the American-born owner of Hermitage Capital Management, William Browder, in an effort to investigate the theft of assets from his companies by the Russian police. Magnitsky then courageously exposed these actions, was arrested and died in pretrial detention in a Russian prison after being tortured, beaten and denied medical care. It is this story of heroism that Nekrasov set out to tell, leaning heavily on Browder for the details of the case.

The first portion of the film is the original documentary interspersed with voiceovers by Browder and reenacted by actors. Following Browder’s narrative arc, it traces the story of Browder and Magnitsky, starting from the police raid of Hermitage Capital Management’s offices. Browder claims that the police stole original company registration papers in order to re-register Browder’s companies in different names. The police, along with members of organized crime, stole $230 million from their own government in the form of Browder’s tax payments. To investigate, Browder hired the “lawyer” (in reality, according to Magnitsky himself and those closest to him, he was an accountant) Sergei Magnitsky to investigate where the money had gone. Magnitsky discovered an intricate web of companies and bank accounts connected to members of the Russian police. He was largely ignored until police came to his home and arrested him. He remained in pretrial detention, where he was encouraged to take back his accusations. The police involved in the fraud then tortured him to attempt to break him, but he would not withdraw his testimony. Magnitsky became very ill and demanded to see a doctor, but his request was denied. Finally, he was handcuffed and beaten for over an hour until he died.

All of these events are portrayed by actors, but as Nekrasov reviews the footage, he begins to feel uneasy about some gaps and contradictions in Browder’s story. The Russian Presidential Human Rights Council suggested that Magnitsky died of acute heart failure, not injuries—a declaration easy to pass off as a Russian coverup. But when Nekrasov interviews Magnitsky’s mother, she too denies some of Browder’s narrative and says that she does not believe her son was intentionally murdered—rather, medical negligence after his decline into ill health caused his death.

Browder’s crusade to tell the story of Magnitsky led him to Congress, where he shared Magnitsky’s story, leading to the passage of the Magnitsky Act, seen in the eyes of Russia as “American geopolitical bullying.” The act placed travel bans and financial sanctions on those implicated in the mistreatment of Magnitsky. Russia responded with the Dima Yakovlev Act, which banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans, and a retaliatory list of sanctioned Americans that they believed to have perpetrated human rights abuses. Pavel Karpov, the main villain in Browder’s story, spoke to Nekrasov on camera. He explained that there was “no sign of [Magnitsky] exposing us” and that Browder had concocted “a very contrived plot” to distract from his own misdeeds. Karpov noted that in 2004, Browder’s company Kamea was already under investigation for tax evasion. Magnitsky’s accusation of Karpov is the fundamental backbone of Browder’s story—though Karpov asserts, and Nekrasov discovers, that Magnitsky’s original testimony contains no reference to Karpov or any accusations at all. The English translation of the testimony, however—which Browder provided to investigative committees, including the Council of Europe—shows a testimony more amenable to Browder’s story. In the original Russian, it is clear that Magnitsky made no accusations; rather, he was being questioned by the police as a witness in the investigation of Browder. Magnitsky was questioned about the $230 million, but newspaper records show that this figure was already publically known.