Thursday, 19 November 2009

Rights groups want Russia lawyer death investigated

MOSCOW - Human rights groups have called for an independent investigation into the sudden death of a 37-year-old witness in a Russian legal battle over tax fraud. Sergei Magnitsky, a suspect in a tax evasion case against Hermitage, once Russia's biggest investment fund, died of heart failure in prison on Monday, state prosecutors said.Magnitsky's lawyer had complained that he had been denied medical attention during almost a year in custody, and on Wednesday called for an investigation into whether the state had failed to provide the necessary care.Russia's Interior Ministry's investigative committee has said it had not been aware of any serious health problems."If it is true that Magnitsky complained about his health and was in a facility that did not have a prison hospital ... it is more than troubling," said Allison Gill, Moscow director of New York-based Human Rights Watch."When someone dies in custody, international standards state the burden is on national governments to explain the circumstances of the death," she said, adding that an investigation should be launched.A second human rights expert said the Russian system tended to keep prisoners in jail regardless of health -- a situation that needed to be reformed."It wasn't necessary to keep him (Magnitsky) in jail -- just to make some restrictions on his freedom of movement within Moscow," said Valery Borshchev, a Russia-based human rights and prison rights activist.Magnitsky was a former legal adviser to Hermitage's co-founder Bill Browder who fell out with Russian authorities after publicly berating big companies over their treatment of minority shareholders.The U.S.-born hedge fund manager was denied entry into Russia in 2005 on national security grounds and has since waged a corporate and legal war against the country.He has accused Russian officials of taking cash from the state budget and has in turn been accused of tax evasion -- a case that also implicated Magnitsky and led to his arrest in November last year on conspiracy charges.

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