A Russian court has cleared the only person charged in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer whose death in custody three years ago has driven a wedge between Russia and the US.
The American outcry over the death in 2009 of the lawyer has led to US legislation aimed at punishing those responsible. Russia has retaliated with its own counter-measure – a law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, which President Vladimir Putin signed into law on Friday morning.
Dmitry Kratov, a doctor in the prison where Magnitsky was held, was the only person charged over the death. Several other officials accused of involvement have instead been awarded promotions. On Friday, a judge in Moscow found Kratov not guilty of involvement, making the doctor one of the less than 1% of Russians on trial who win acquittal each year.
Magnitsky, a lawyer for the London-based investor William Browder, was arrested while investigating state corruption and died in prison in 2009 after developing pancreatitis that was left untreated. An investigation by the Kremlin’s human rights council also found that he had been severely beaten.
Pointing to the absence of a full investigation in Russia, Browder helped lobby for a new US law that forbids Russians involved in the death from travelling to or keeping bank accounts in the US, dubbed the Magnitsky Act.
Russia responded with its own law forbidding Americans from adopting Russian children. That triggered a condemnation inside Russia, where critics have accused the government of being “cannibalistic” and damaging first and foremost the country’s hundreds of thousands of orphans. Putin’s foreign and education ministers are among those who have spoken out against the law.
Around 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans in the past 20 years. The UN estimates that there are around 740,000 children living in Russia without parental custody.
Speaking at a press conference last week, Putin defended the legislation as an appropriate response to the Magnitsky Act, which he dubbed an “anti-Russian” law.
Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 while investigating an alleged $230m (£143m) tax fraud carried out by tax and interior ministry officials. He was left to die while awaiting trial.
Dmitry Medvedev, now prime minister, made repeated calls for a full investigation during his presidency, to no effect.
Magnitsky’s supporters appear to have lost hope for an independent investigation inside Russia. His mother, Natalia Magnitskaya, boycotted Friday’s hearing, saying in a statement: “Participation in this court hearing would have been humiliating for me. I understand that everything has been decided in advance and everything has been predetermined.”
Kratov pleaded not guilty to charges of negligence, arguing that he was unable to ensure medical care for Magnitsky because of a shortage of staff.