Page last updated at 16:28 GMT, Monday, 15 November 2010

One year on Sergei Magnitsky jail death remains mystery

Watch Tim Whewell's investigation in full

By Tim Whewell
BBC Newsnight

In an exclusive interview with BBC Newsnight, Lieutenant-Colonel Oleg Silchenko, a senior Russian policeman accused of involvement in the mysterious death in jail of prominent Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, has spoken about the claims for the first time.

Sergei Magnitsky
Sergei Magnitsky said the charges against him were fabricated

Lt Col Silchenko denied inflicting suffering amounting to torture on the jailed lawyer, who was being held on tax evasion charges when he died in unexplained circumstances in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre one year ago, and hit back at his accusers.

"What happened was a big misfortune for Magnitsky's relatives, but the job of the investigation was to investigate, not to put pressure on him. We had enough proof of his guilt," Lt Col Silchenko, one of Russia's most elite investigators, told Newsnight.

"The attempt to accuse law enforcement agencies of involvement in this crime is absurd," he added.

Elaborate scam

Lt Col Silchenko is leading the investigation into Magnitsky's client, the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, which led to Magnitsky being charged with tax evasion.

Magnitsky had claimed the charges against him were fabricated in revenge for testimony against two senior detectives, Lt Col Artyom Kuznetsov and Major Pavel Karpov, in which he accused them of facilitating an elaborate tax rebate scam that fraudulently netted $230m (£143m) from Russia's treasury.

Journalist claims FSB secret police ordered Magnitsky imprisonment

The two policemen deny the charges and have launched libel actions backed by the state.

A previously healthy 37-year-old, Magnitsky was held in a series of jails for a year before he died in the detention centre.

A report by Russia's official prison watchdog concluded that investigators, led by Lt-Col Silchenko, subjected Magnitsky to treatment amounting to torture in an attempt to persuade him to withdraw his allegations against the police - and instead implicate his own client, millionaire British investor William Browder.

Newsnight has seen notes written by Magnitsky in which he said he had to endure extreme cold, lack of water and frequent cell transfers, and was denied family visits and medical treatment for worsening pancreatitis.

International outcry

Lt Col Silchenko rejected the claims, telling Newsnight that the campaign against him and other Russian officials was a "populist initiative" by Magnitsky's former employer, Mr Browder, created to allow him "to escape responsibility for his crimes in Russia and abroad".

Matrosskaya Tishina prison (Man's quiescence) building in Moscow
Magnitsky died just days before a one year limit on being held without trial

Once Russia's leading foreign investor, Mr Browder, of Hermitage Capital Management, was banned from the country in 2005 after allegations that his firms had evaded tax.

He had campaigned against corruption at some of Russia's largest companies.

Magnitsky's mysterious death has drawn much attention and triggered an international row.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague are among politicians who have lent support to campaigners who say he was jailed on fabricated evidence in an attempt to cover-up his allegations of high-level corruption.

US Senator John McCain has co-sponsored a bill, currently going through Congress, which if passed would ban 60 officials said to be involved in Magnitsky's death, including Lt Col Silchenko, from entering the US.

The bill has sparked an angry response from the Kremlin, which warns against a return to Cold War attitudes.

'Breakthrough'

Now, in a move certain to further raise tensions between Russia and the West, Russia's top investigation agency said on Monday that they had made a breakthrough in attempts to solve the $230m theft.

William Browder
William Browder was once Russia's biggest foreign investor

The Investigative Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs rejected claims that senior police officers were party to the crime and instead said it had evidence that Magnitsky was himself behind the scam.

A ministry spokeswoman said Magnitsky had stolen the money by filing tax forms illegally, a claim they said had been confirmed by confessions of two accomplices.

When Lt Col Silchenko, himself part of the Investigative Committee, spoke to Newsnight he had suggested that Magnitsky and others employed by Mr Browder's investment fund, might themselves have been involved in the $230m scam.

And he showed Newsnight documents which he said prove Mr Browder had evaded taxes on a large scale - a charge denied by Mr Browder.

Kidnapping

Lt Col Silchenko also said Magnitsky had made his allegations against the police only after his own arrest.

But documents seen by Newsnight in the course of an investigation into the affair show that the authorities had been given evidence of the scam on 3 December 2007 - three weeks before the fraudulent rebate was claimed - and nearly a year before Magnitsky's arrest.

Senator John McCain
John McCain co-sponsored a bill banning officials linked to Magnitsky's death

And Newsnight has learned that the policemen accused by Magnitsky of being behind the $230m theft - Lt Col Artyom Kuznetsov and Major Pavel Karpov - had previously been accused of abuse of power in another case.

Moscow travel agent Yekaterina Mikheyeva told the BBC both were linked to the kidnap of her businessman husband, Fyodor, four years ago.

She said her husband was questioned by police on fraud allegations, but was then neither released nor charged. Instead, he was driven away from police headquarters by unknown men - who then held him prisoner at a house outside Moscow for 11 days.

She claims that during a rendezvous in Gorky Park one of the kidnappers told her he wanted a $20m ransom - and warned her not to go to the police, because he was himself acting on police orders.

"He said they were allowed to take any bribes. The prosecutor would sign any paper they gave him. All that mattered was their ability to get the right result."

Previous abuse claim

Eventually Fyodor Mikheyev was freed by another section of the police, and the captors were arrested. But the case against them was mysteriously dropped - while her husband, the victim, was re-arrested on fraud charges, and jailed for 11 years.

Yekaterina Mikheyeva
If someone has power in our police, and it suits them to break a man's life, it's very easy
Yekaterina Mikheyeva

According to Mrs Mikheyeva and her husband, Lt Col Kuznetsov and Maj Karpov - the men later accused by Magnitsky - were involved.

Mrs Mikheyeva believes her husband was jailed - with the involvement of Lt Col Kuznetsov - to punish him for reporting the kidnap, just as Magnitsky was later punished for reporting the massive theft:

"If someone has power in our police, and it suits them to break a man's life, it's very easy," she told Newsnight.

"Later when I heard Magnitsky had died, I realised they're still carrying out their crimes. No-one can stop them."

Watch Tim Whewell's investigation into Sergei Magnitsky's death in full on Newsnight on Monday 15 November 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.



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