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Death by Detention

Amy Knight, a longtime Russia reporter and author, has a very great blog posting over at the New York Review of Books on the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

In early December, amid growing public outcry over Magnitsky’s death, President Dmitry Medvedev fired twenty senior officials in the Federal Prison Service, including the chief of Butyrka prison and the Moscow prisons chief, and ordered the Ministry of Justice, which oversees prisons, to investigate the case. On December 29, a day after the Public Commission’s report came out, Medvedev went higher up the ladder, dismissing the deputy chief of the Federal Prison Service, Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Piskunov. In a separate decree Medvedev made it illegal to hold persons accused of tax and other financial crimes in pre-trial detention. This was an important step because those who are wrongly charged with financial malfeasance–a common occurrence when powerful people want to get rid of enemies–can languish in prison for a year, or even longer, if the court consents, without a trial.

Medvedev also moved against the MVD. In mid-December he fired thehead of the agency’s tax crimes unit, Anatoly Mikhalkin, who in 2007had ordered a subordinate to gather confidential information aboutHermitage Capital’s holding companies. On December 24, Medvedev signeda decree mandating a 20 percent cut in MVD staff by January 2012 andcalling for a series of organizational reforms in the agency.

Unfortunately, the main culprit in the Magnitsky affair, the FSB,has until now remained unscathed. Despite the dismissal of Putin’sclose ally, Nikolai Patrushev, from his post as FSB chief in 2008(apparently as a result of internecine feuds), this agency is filledwith Putin appointees and continues to wield tremendous influence overthe other law enforcement agencies, including the MVD. Medvedevdeserves credit for taking some first steps toward cracking down on theterrible human rights abuses in Russia’s criminal justice system. Buthe does not have the power to openly challenge Putin’s FSB stronghold,even if he wanted to–and his larger intentions remain a matter of muchspeculation.