Page last updated at 21:54 GMT, Wednesday, 7 March 2012

MPs debate Russia's human rights record

MPs have held a backbench business debate on Russia's human rights record.

The Commons debate focused on the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer investigating tax fraud who was found dead in Moscow in 2009.

Mr Magnitsky, who was detained after accusing officials of fraud, allegedly died owing to torture and neglect.

The debate on 7 March 2012 was granted after a request by Conservative MP Dominic Raab and former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband to the Commons Backbench Business Committee.

Mr Raab, a former Foreign Office lawyer, claimed Mr Magnitsky had exposed "the biggest tax fraud in Russian history" which "cost him his life".

He said that despite the implication of 60 people in the abuse of Mr Magnitsky and the original tax fraud, "the Russian authorities blocked all attempts to bring those responsible to justice".

He called for travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials if there was any evidence they were involved in human rights abuses.

Former Labour Foreign Minister Chris Bryant claimed the Russian ambassador had attempted to stop the Commons debate from going ahead.

Commons Speaker John Bercow later confirmed he had received a letter from the ambassador, after a point of order from Tory Edward Leigh.

Mr Bercow told MPs the letter drew to his attention "what [the ambassador] regarded as the errors contained in the motion and the merit of what he thought to be that fact being communicated to the sponsors of the debate".

Mr Bercow said he underlined in writing that as an impartial Speaker he could not be expected to comment on the contents of the letter or the motion, but the ambassador could write to the debate's sponsors if he wished.

"This House debates what it wants to debate and if other people wish to send letters they can send letters, but it is not the responsibility of the Speaker to act as a post person," Mr Bercow concluded.

For Labour, Emma Reynolds said Mr Magnitsky was thought to have uncovered a network of corruption "which implicated politicians, the police, judges and members of the Russian mafia".

She claimed people who tried to expose allegations of corruption and abuse by the Russian state "run a high risk of being murdered" but those responsible for their murders "appear to run little risk of being caught and punished".

She wanted to know what steps the government would take to increase pressure on the Russian government regarding Sergei Magnitsky's case, and to tackle the "culture of impunity" in Russia.

Junior Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said the circumstances of Mr Magnitsky's death and the lack of progress in the case were "deeply troubling".

He told MPs it served as a "stark reminder of the human rights situation in Russia and questions about the rule of law there".

He said current immigration rules allowed visas to be refused in certain circumstances, and that asset freezes could be employed "where the measures would affect meaningful change".

But he added: "The UK has a long-established and globally consistent practice of not commenting routinely on individual cases."

He confirmed that the government would not oppose the backbench motion - which was later passed without a vote by MPs.

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