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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

20 Prison Officials Fired After Lawyer’s Death

President Dmitry Medvedev has fired 20 prison officials, including Moscow’s top prison official and the head of the Butyrskaya jail, after an investigation into lawyer Sergei Magnitsky’s death last month found that prison officials had neglected his medical problems.

Magnitsky, 37, who represented William Browder’s Hermitage Capital in a high-profile fight with the Interior Ministry, died Nov. 16 in a prison hospital from what the Interior Ministry said was heart failure.

Magnitsky complained of stomach ailments after being jailed almost a year ago, and his supporters blame the country’s notorious prison system for not properly attending to his medical needs. Hermitage has said prosecutors rejected his family’s request for an independent autopsy.

Medvedev signed a decree Dec. 4 dismissing the head of the Moscow branch of the Federal Prison Service, Major General Alexander Davydov and the head of the Butyrskaya jail, Dmitry Komnov, Federal Prison Service head Alexander Reimer said Friday.

Among the other 18 dismissed officials were the head of the Federal Prison Service’s department for pretrial detention centers and prisons, Major General Valery Telyukh; and the head of its medical department, Vladimir Troitsky; as well as other prison officials around the country.

Magnitsky spent the last weeks of his life in Butyrskaya, and Reimer said the ouster of Butyrskaya’s head was directly linked to the death.

Reimer said on Ekho Moskvy radio that an internal investigation into the death by his agency found that Magnitsky’s rights concerning his living conditions had been violated in Butyrskaya.

A spokesman for the Federal Prison Service, Alexander Kromin, appeared to contradict Reimer’s remarks, saying the dismissals were not directly connected to Magnitsky’s death. Kromin said the shake-up was because of violations in providing medical assistance to prisoners in general, he told Interfax.

Repeated calls to the press office of the Federal Prison Service and its Moscow branch for clarification went unanswered Friday. A Butyrskaya spokeswoman referred requests for comment to the prison service’s Moscow branch.

Reimer also said several Moscow prison officials had received reprimands, but he did not identify the officials or elaborate on the reprimands.

He said his agency had drafted new detention rules that would guarantee prisoners at least eight hours of continuous sleep every day and time for exercise and eating.

Magnitsky, a lawyer with the Firestone Duncan law firm, was jailed on charges of organizing a scheme with U.S.-British investor Browder to evade taxes. The case was opened by the Interior Ministry shortly after Magnitsky and Browder accused several senior ministry officials of stealing $230 million in federal funds.

Hermitage Capital, once the largest foreign investment fund in Russia, urged Medvedev to go after “far bigger fish” than the dismissed prison officials.

“The penal system employees are merely the bottom of the feeding chain of individuals who were responsible for the death of Sergei,” a Hermitage Capital spokesman said. “There are many other far bigger fish involved in this tragedy. The corrupt Interior Ministry officials whom Sergei testified against for their involvement in the $230 million theft from the Russian state, and who retaliated against Sergei’s brave act by arresting him, bear direct responsibility for his death.”

Magnitsky’s boss, Jamison Firestone, praised Medvedev for acting against the prison officials but said he should focus on why Magnitsky was arrested in the first place.

“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,” he said in a commentary published in The Moscow Times. (See commentary, Page 10)

A Kremlin spokeswoman said late Friday that the press office had no comment on the prison dismissals.

Medvedev ordered prosecutors and the Justice Ministry to investigate Magnitsky’s death in late November, just a day after he was publicly pressed by his human rights advisers on the case.

Just hours after Medvedev ordered the inquiry, the Investigative Committee said in a statement that it had opened a criminal case over negligence and prison officials’ failure to provide medical aid. Both charges carry maximum sentences of three years in prison.

The head of the Federal Prison Service’s public council expressed hope that the prison dismissals would lead to improvements for prisoners.

“I believe that the other [prison] chiefs will understand that violations must not be allowed,” said Maria Kannabikh, who is a member of the Public Chamber.

But human rights activists voiced skepticism. “I doubt that anything will change. It might have if criminal cases had been opened,” said Anna Kolesnikova, a member of the Moscow public commission that monitors prisoners’ rights.

Prominent defense lawyer Igor Trunov said prisoners needed to be granted the right to be examined by doctors independent of the Federal Prison Service. “Formally, only a doctor can decide whether a person can stay in detention, but a prison doctor will issue whatever diagnosis that the prison chief needs,” Trunov said.

At total of 386 people have died in Russian pretrial detentions between January and late November, including 169 from injuries and suicides, Reimer said.