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Denial of Medical Care Common Blackmail Practice in Russian Prisons

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Human-rights activists and colleagues of a 37-year-old attorney who died Tuesday in a Moscow prison say it is common practice in Russia to deny medical attention to people in custody as a way to force them to cooperate with prosecutors or corrupt officials. 

Russian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Irina Dudukina says attorney Sergei Magnitsky died of heart failure in pretrial detention. 

Magnitsky was a tax lawyer for the London-based Hermitage Capital Management Fund.  It was once the largest foreign investor on the Russian stock market. 

The Fund's Chief Executive, William Browder, waged an anti-corruption campaign in Russia to increase investor confidence.  The campaign led to allegations that Russian Interior Ministry officials colluded with tax authorities to steal $230 million from the national treasury. 

Magnitsky was then arrested on what Hermitage officials say were trumped up charges of tax evasion to force him to testify against Browder.  The American-born CEO, now a British subject, was expelled from Russia in 2005.  Browder's grandfather was the head of the American Communist Party.

Magnitsky developed problems with his pancreas and gall bladder as a result of what his American business associate, Jamison Firestone, described to VOA as filthy prison conditions.  They included a tiny cell with two other people, no hot water, a shower once a week, and a kitchen above a hole in the floor that served as a toilet. 

Firestone says the denial of medical care resulted in a slow motion killing by Interior Ministry officials seeking to hide corruption Magnitsky helped expose.  The Ministry is often referred to by its Russian abbreviation, MVD.

"The MVD increased pressure on Magnitsky by telling him he could no longer have his medicines and by not giving him the operation - and he died!" said Firestone.

The Moscow Prosecutor's office announced it will investigate Magnitsky's death.  But an office spokeswoman told VOA she had no time to comment on Firestone's allegations and asked that we call back later.  Her phone was put in fax mode for the remainder of the day.

An independent prisoner-rights activist in Moscow, Valeriy Borshov, says the law stipulates that seriously ill patients may be released on their own recognizance to get outside medical attention.  But he says they are often denied the right.

Borshov says investigators use the practice to pressure those under investigation and courts do not pay attention to their health.

The director of Russia's For Human Rights Organization, Lev Ponomarev, says medical attention has been withheld from other seriously ill inmates.  They include Vasily Aleksanyan, a former executive of the now defunct Yukos Oil Company, who needed cancer treatment in 2008.

Ponmorev says authorities would not release Aleksanyan.  He notes they did so only in response to massive social pressure and after the European Human Rights Court became involved in the businessman's case.

Senior Yukos officials were jailed on charges of fraud and tax evasion, which observers say were a pretext to steal the company and to silence its Chief Executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a vocal Kremlin critic.

Jamison Firestone says the Magnitsky case is a perfect opportunity for President Medvedev to carry out his much-touted anti-corruption drive.

"It would show the world, and not only the world, but it would also show the Russian people, that the Russian president is serious about fighting corruption, because it does not get any more corrupt than this," said Firestone.

Magnitsky leaves behind a wife and two young children. 

  
 

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