Natalia Magnitskaya speaks in whispers, her tired eyes looking down at fingers that twist and turn from anxiety. She barely slept last night, as with most nights in the two years since her son died within the walls of one of Russia‘s most notorious prisons.
Sergei Magnitsky was 37 when he died in November 2009 of multiple ailments he developed after being arrested a year earlier. The charges against him, of fraud and tax evasion, were designed to pressure the young lawyer into backing off on an investigation into an alleged attempt by corrupt state officials to steal $230m (£143m) in fake tax refunds, his supporters say.
Since then, Magnitsky’s case has come to symbolise all that is wrong with Russian justice – the horrific pre-trial prison conditions, the aimless investigations, the impunity under which government officials function, and, above all, the fact that no one is immune from being caught up in its Kafkaesque web.
“It’s hard to talk about it,” Magnitskaya said, fitting a small flowered scarf round her shoulders as she sat down to her first interview with a western newspaper. “He wasn’t a businessman. He wasn’t a rich person. He worked and that’s it.”
Magnitskaya, 59, was living in her hometown of Nalchik, in Russia’s troubled Caucasus region, when her only son was brought to Moscow’s infamous Matrosskaya Tishina prison in November 2008. “I kept calling and calling,” she said, explaining how she got news of his arrest. “His wife said he was on a business trip, then that there was something wrong with his phone. They thought it would end quickly.”
It didn’t. Finally, she was informed of his arrest and moved to Moscow to be nearer to him.
Six months earlier, Magnitsky had testified that he had uncovered a scheme whereby police and tax officials had raided the Moscow office of Hermitage Capital, an investment firm run by London-based financier William Browder, to steal documents that allowed them to reclaim millions in fraudulent tax refunds.
“It was incomprehensible what was happening,” Magnitskaya said. “It was totally unexpected.”
Four months later, Magnitsky was transferred to Butyrka, the Tsarist-era detention centre that subsequently became known as the gateway to the Gulag. It was there he would develop the gallstones and pancreatitis that would eventually kill him. Prison doctors found the afflictions during an early examination – and refused to follow up, his mother said, saying it amounted to nothing less than “torture”. The squalid conditions – sharing a windowless room measuring just eight square metres with three other men – only made things worse.
On 17 November 2009, Magnitskaya approached Butyrka carrying a bag of groceries, as she did every week, making sure not to exceed prison rules that limited food deliveries to 30kg a month. A woman manning the reception window said he had been moved back to Matrosskaya Tishina – Magnitskaya assumed it was for medical treatment.
There she was told that her son had been brought to the prison hospital in a critical condition at 6pm the night before. By 9pm he was dead. “I didn’t believe her,” Magnitskaya said. “I said, ‘You’re joking, it’s not true.’
“That’s how I found out.”
Since that day, the only contact Magnitskaya has had from authorities is a request to appear as a witness in the tax fraud investigation against her late son, reopened without explanation earlier this year. She has refused to appear, and the courts have thrown out her repeated complaints that the investigation – against a dead man – is illegal.
She speaks in the language of Soviet times, calling for her son to be “rehabilitated”, a term applied to the process of restoring the honour of those falsely imprisoned under Stalin. “I can’t just recognise he was a criminal, he wasn’t.”
“He was probably a bit naive, an idealist – he thought the law would protect him.”
President Dmitry Medvedev, a former lawyer, has made grand statements promising a thorough investigation into Magnitsky’s death – a unique case. According to the federal prison service, 4,423 people died in Russian prisons last year, out of the nearly 800,000 men and women incarcerated.
Despite Medvedev’s calls, criminal cases have only been opened against two prison doctors who treated Magnitsky and no charges brought. Several of the people involved in the alleged tax fraud scheme he uncovered have been promoted and awarded medals.
“Many people are guilty – those who didn’t treat him, those who illegally arrested him,” Magnitskaya said. “I want them to investigate the guilt of each one.
“I want to believe [an honest investigation] is possible, but I don’t know if it can happen. It hasn’t happened yet.”
Before her son’s death, Magnitskaya didn’t follow politics. “We were far from it all. We heard information that there is corruption, humiliation. But it all seemed unreal. We understood that all is not well, but now we understand that this can happen to anyone.”
Today, she refuses to speak the name of Russia’s president or its powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin. She says she hasn’t given thought to the country’s upcoming elections, when Putin is due to return as president, dismissing them as dishonest.
Instead she has devoted her life to helping raise the two children that her son left behind, now aged 10 and 20. She flies to London and to Berlin, taking part in events that keep her son’s memory alive. She supports efforts by the US and UK, and several European nations, to ban officials involved in her son’s death.
“The saying goes that ‘time heals’, but it seems that’s not how it is,” she said. “During the day you can forget. But when you lie down, you stop believing that Sergei is no longer here.”