Too Early for Congratulations on Magnitsky

President Dmitry Medvedev has fired 20 prison officials, including the heads of the Moscow branch of the Federal Prison Service and the Butyrskaya jail, where Sergei Magnitsky died last month after being denied medical care.

As Magnitsky’s former boss, I’ve been getting congratulatory messages since the Federal Prison Service announced Medvedev’s Dec. 4 decree about the dismissals on Friday. But Medvedev’s attempts to show he is serious about investigating the Magnitsky affair are terribly misleading because the people truly responsible for Magnitsky’s false imprisonment and death are going unpunished.

The investigation is focusing on neglect by prison officials that led to Magnitsky’s death. Magnitsky was not neglected in prison. He was actively persecuted. After being falsely arrested in November 2008, Magnitsky was subjected to inhumane conditions in pretrial detention centers that were much worse than those of a normal prisoner.

To be sure, prison officials responsible for Magnitsky’s care in prison should be punished for criminal negligence. But there is another aspect of the Magnitsky tragedy that is being conspicuously ignored — why he was arrested in the first place. Magnitsky was jailed by law enforcement officers whom he had accused of participating in a scheme to steal $230 million in state funds.

The officers who imprisoned Magnitsky wanted him to withdraw his testimony against Interior Ministry officers in the $230 million scheme and to change his story to incriminate himself and his client, William Browder, head of Hermitage Capital. He was promised his freedom for doing this. When Magnitsky repeatedly refused to comply, his conditions were made worse until he died.

The state of the Russian prison system and the ultimate cause of Magnitsky’s death — ruptured digestive system and heart failure — are just distractions from the main issue that Medvedev should be investigating.

The only issue that really matters in Magnitsky’s case is that a group of corrupt law enforcement officers imprisoned a man who they knew was innocent, and they purposely put him in awful conditions in an attempt to get him to change his story. This is how Magnitsky was killed.

Although prison authorities clearly bear responsibility for allowing their law enforcement colleagues to continuously play this game and use their institutions as instruments of pressure, they were not the people who were actively persecuting Magnitsky, and they are not the people who should bear the most blame for his illegal arrest and death. Furthermore, they are not even being accused of the real crime — allowing their institutions to be used as instruments of pressure by fellow law enforcement agencies. The 20 prison officials who were fired are simply being accused of negligence, not criminal negligence.

Interior Ministry officers Artyom Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov need to be investigated over whether they played any role in the $230 million scheme and fabricating the case against Magnitsky after he accused them of wrongdoing.

Oleg Silchenko, an investigator in the case, also needs to be investigated over whether he pressured Magnitsky to change his testimony.

In addition, Andrei Pechegin, an official at the Prosecutor General’s Office, was entrusted with fielding all of Magnitsky’s complaints, and an investigation needs to be opened into whether he prevented the complaints from being investigated or passed to higher-ups. No investigation ever followed any complaints that the Law Society of London and the International Bar Association made to Medvedev or that I made to the Prosecutor General’s Office about Magnitsky’s illegal detention or the conditions of that detention. The only thing I received was a short, pro forma letter from Pechegin stating that Magnitsky was detained in accordance with Russia’s laws and that everything was fine.

Judges Svetlana Ukhnaleva and Yelena Stashina also need to be investigated for making rulings that allowed the Interior Ministry to keep Magnitsky in detention in violation of law. Whether they knew the details of why the Interior Ministry wanted Magnitsky kept in detention is irrelevant. They must have known that there was no legal basis for his detention.

The importance of opening thorough investigations into Kuznetsov, Karpov, Pechegin, Ukhnaleva and Stashina is much higher than the need to investigate the prison authorities, which just looked the other way as Magnitsky slowly died. Medvedev should indict the people behind the $230 million fraud and forgery scheme that Magnitsky exposed. He also should punish the people who are responsible for Magnitsky’s unjust arrest and for creating the conditions that killed him. Until Medvedev does this, no congratulations are in order.

Jamison Firestone is an attorney and managing partner of Firestone Duncan, which has offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg.