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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hermitage Lawyer Dies Suddenly in Custody

A 37-year-old lawyer jailed amid a heated tax dispute between Hermitage Capital, once the largest investment fund in Russia, and the Interior Ministry died abruptly in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina detention center.

Sergei Magnitsky, a father of two, died at 9:50 p.m. Monday of apparent toxic shock and heart failure, said Irina Dudukina, a spokeswoman for the investigative committee of the Interior Ministry.

Interior Ministry investigators had accused Magnitsky, a partner with the Firestone Duncan law firm, of being directly involved in developing and executing a scheme in which Hermitage head William Browder purportedly evaded more than 100 million rubles ($3.25 million) in taxes in 2002.

The tax case was opened after Browder accused senior Interior Ministry officials of stealing more than $230 million in budget money. Magnitsky testified in June 2008 and October 2008 against two police officials, including Colonel Lieutenant Artyom Kuznetsov, who later joined the investigation into Magnitsky.

Magnitsky was arrested Nov. 24 after a search of his apartment and moved between several detention centers before being sent to the Butyrskaya jail in late July.

Magnitsky’s lawyer Dmitry Kharitonov said Tuesday that Butyrskaya officials had barred him from entering the jail on Monday to visit his client, citing Magnitsky’s poor health.

“We asked what was wrong with him and were told not to worry,” Kharitonov told The Moscow Times. “Today we were told that he had been taken to Matrosskaya Tishina and later we found out that he died at about 9 p.m. yesterday.”

Magnitsky’s mother was the first to find out about the death of her son Tuesday. She came to Butyrskaya to give him some personal items and was told that her son had been transferred to a different detention facility, Hermitage Capital said in a statement.

Dudukina, of the Interior Ministry, said Magnitsky had been transferred to Matrosskaya Tishina because he had needed medical attention and Butyrskaya did not have a hospital.

She said Magnitsky had not raised any health concerns at his most recent court hearing, when Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court ruled Thursday to prolong his detention until Nov. 26.

“For us it was a complete surprise. He didn’t complain about his health to the judge or to the investigator,” Dudukina said by telephone, referring to the chief investigator in the Magnitsky case, Oleg Silchenko, who attended the hearing.

Dudukina said an autopsy would be carried out.

But Magnitsky’s lawyer said his client had been visibly ill at the hearing. “He was very nervous that day after the judge turned down all our petitions,” Kharitonov said. “He was shaking, I’ve never seen him in such condition.”

Magnitsky was diagnosed with pancreatic problems in August. He told the Tverskoi District Court in September that he suffered chest pains and asked for a doctor to be allowed to examine him. The court rejected the request.

Magnitsky also complained at the September hearing about “inhumane conditions” in the Butyrskaya jail, including the absence of a toilet, hot water and windows.

Investigators had planned to pass the case to the court for trial in December, Dudukina said.

If he had been found guilty, Magnitsky would have faced up to six years in prison.

Magnitsky’s lawyers asked investigators Tuesday to open a criminal case in connection with his death and filed a series of complaints, including one about the medical attention given to Magnitsky in custody.

Magnitsky wrote a 40-page complaint to Prosecutor General Yury Chaika describing a serious medical condition that developed while he was in detention and pleaded for access to medical attention, Hermitage Capital said. There was no response to his complaint, it said.

Jamison Firestone, founder of the Firestone Duncan law firm, where Magnitsky worked, said the police bore responsibility for the death because they had not responded to Magnitsky’s complaints about his health. “The police just killed my colleague and friend,” Firestone said.

He said he doubted that a proper investigation would be carried out into the death.

Browder expressed his condolences to Magnitsky’s family.

“Sergei was a brilliant and honorable lawyer known by all who met him as a diligent professional and a committed family man,” Browder said in an e-mailed statement.

The Interior Ministry added Browder to an international wanted list last month in connection with the allegation that he and Magnitsky had organized the tax-evasion scheme.

Browder has been barred from Russia because of national security concerns since 2005. He has linked the ban to his high-profile battles against Gazprom over inflated corporate spending and Kremlin-linked oil major Surgutneftegaz over its murky ownership schemes.

Hermitage says five of its lawyers have fled Russia to avoid being detained like Magnitsky, while criminal cases have been opened against two fund managers, who also have left Russia.