Editor's Note: The original copy of the investigation (in Ukrainian) can be found here. It was authored by Angelina Kariakina, Nataliya Gumenyuk and Katerina Serhatskova
In October, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that suspended the agreement with the United States on weapons-grade plutonium.
To restore the agreement, the Kremlin is demanding the U.S. cancel the so-called 'Magnitsky Act', a sanctions list against a handful of Russian human rights violators and corrupt officials including those involved in one of the largest budget embezzlement cases in Russian history. Criminals working with government officials are thought to have stolen approximately $230 million from the Russian state budget. Investigators found the culprits took the funds by fraudulently reclaiming taxes paid by subsidiaries of the Hermіtаge Capital Management investment fund, founded by British financier Bill Browder. Sergey Magnitsky was the lawyer who uncovered the mass graft. Nearly seven years ago, he died in a Moscow prison after alleged beatings and torture. His supporters claim the punishment he received was in retribution for implicating the state bodies in the tax scam.
Photo: Sergei Magnitsky
Over the past year, the Russian mass media have paid special attention to the 'Magnitsky Act'. On Russian TV channel Rossiya, journalists have repeatedly stated that Browder is the crook who stole from the company and that the security forces are the victims of Western propaganda.
Then in Spring 2016, a Russian film director named Andrei Nekrasov released a movie called 'The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes'. Whether consciously or not, it repeated the same messages as several Russian propaganda channels; Browder and Magnitsky are criminals and the Russian security forces are not guilty until proven otherwise.
Mr. Nekrasov's movie was filmed in Ukraine, in the midst of war in Donbas. The key roles were played by Ukrainian actors, and scenes where Magnitsky is in custody, were filmed in Lukyanovka prison in Kyiv. Now Hromadske journalists have investigated how this film was made and what role the Ukrainian actors really played in its production.
Death In Prison
On 16 November 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was killed in a Russian prison. The story of his life and death became one of the most poignant points in the confrontation between Russia and the West over decades.
Sergei Magnitsky worked as a lawyer for the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, run by British financier Bill Browder. It was one of the largest investment companies in Russia which worked with many big corporations including Gazprom, Transneft, and Sberbank.
In the summer of 2007, Russian security forces raided the fund’s Moscow offices and seized, what they considered, incriminating documents; company records, corporate seals, and tax certificates. Soon after, the company was registered with other owners including a sawmill foreman with a criminal record. Using the tax office, these new companies demanded the return of taxes already paid on the company's profits. The amount totaled about $230 million. This alleged complex 'compensation' scheme is considered to be one of the biggest budgetary fund scams ever in Russia.
Magnitsky is credited for investigating and exposing this scheme. He argued that the security forces who carried out the searches were involved. In November 2008, Magnitsky was arrested for tax evasion by the same security forces he had been investigating. Some 11 months after he was detained, the 37-year old was found dead in the Matrosskaya Tishina detention facility. The official cause - heart failure.
Frame from the film ‘The Magnitsky Act. Behind the Scenes’
However, the results of a forensic examination by the Public Supervisory Committee discovered that no medical assistance was given to Magnitsky despite being in pain. Prison authorities merely placed him in handcuffs and locked him in a cell. On his body, forensic specialists discovered signs of trauma, likely inflicted by rubber sticks.
A year later, in 2010, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin called on then-Secretary of State HillaryClinton to permanently prohibit 60 Russian officials suspected of being involved in Magnitsky's case from being allowed into America. This initiative was supported by Congress and the so-called Magnitsky Act was signed by President Barack Obama.
Two years later, Russia retaliated by adopting the so-called Dima Yakovlev Law, which prohibits U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children.
Nearly 7 years after Magnitsky’s death, many questions remain unanswered.
"I believe I have uncovered a very serious crime"
In Spring 2016, Russian filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov showcased his take on the Magnitsky case. He had previously produced movies on the war in Georgia and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. The film about Magnitsky was supported by a number of renowned European institutions, including the Franco-German ZDF/ARTE, the Norwegian Film Institute and other backers.
Andrei Nekrasov (right) Director of ‘The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes’
that Magnitsky died naturally in the prison cell.
So, we decided to look at the facts. Here are the two main arguments of Nekrasov.
Firstly, he says Magnitsky did not testify against the security forces who conducted the case, predominantly, investigators Pavel Karpov and Artem Kuznetsov. The director uses Magnitsky’s interrogation records as evidence. But the MEP’s and activists didn't understand the protocols since they are in Russian. But this is not an argument. In fact, it seems more like a tool used for manipulation. In the protocol dated from June 2008, Karpov and Kuznetsov are mentioned more than 10 times.
According to Magnitsky: "The amount paid in taxes was high - which apparently raised questions from the police....On the night of the search or the next day, I talked with (Hermitage executive Ivan) Cherkasov over the phone. He said that Kuznetsov was present during the office search and told one of his colleagues that I should have met with them when they offered and then, nothing would have happened. Karpov did not send any documents...The above developments are indicative of 2007 when it was possible to use information and materials which were seized during the searches."
In the interrogation protocol from October, he repeats his previous statements.
The Russian director’s second argument is that Magnitsky was not beaten in prison but likely died of natural causes. However, the death certificate lists the probable death as craniocerebral trauma. Post-mortem photographs show the wounds from the handcuffs and bruises. In 'the act of applying the handcuffs,' there is a mention of a rubber stick. Human rights activist Zoya Svetova, who was a member of the commission investigating the circumstances of Magnitsky’s death, was outraged by the filmmaker’s argument.
"I had no support, even from Russia, although it certainly was beneficial for them to support me. Who would want to manipulate me? Karpov? Maybe it would be beneficial for him but I did not listen to him because of his beautiful eyes. I gave him my full trust because I saw that the person was unjustly convicted. You know, I thought: why should the outrage over justice be the privilege of a certain class? Human rights defenders, opposition artists, such as myself? You know, in Russia, we have very strong intellectuals with relative freedom. We do not get sent to jail for criticizing Putin. There is a class of influential journalists and of opposition leaders. But do you think they are the only ones who deserve justice?
I saw that even in Russian courts, Karpov’s claims were not accepted. He had a claim to "Novaya Gazeta" in the Tver court. The court did not accept it: not enough proof. I saw that the man was being persecuted. Okay, he was denied entry to America and not allowed to have accounts in American banks. Maybe he doesn't need this America. But he has a family, a son was born, as far as I know. But when his son will grow up, he will see these claims that his father is a murderer, he tortured a man and stole money. Supposedly, he is a thief and a murderer. Do we only have one category of citizens who deserve justice?
Photo: Bill Browder (left) with Andriy Nekrasov (right)
The founder of Hermitage Capital Bill Browder says, with Nekrasov, he introduced Heidi Hautala, an MEP from Finland and a well-known Kremlin critic. It was 2010 and Browder had given several interviews to the director, which outlined the world-known version of the Magnitsky case. But in history, how Nekrasov told the story was out of context and mixed different facts, explains Browder.
The role of investigator Karpov in Nekrasov’s film was performed by Ukrainian actor and TV presenter Hennadiy Popenko.
The main part of the movie was filmed in Ukraine during some of the most intense fighting in Donbas. Almost all of the major roles were played by Ukrainian actors. The casting and production were also done by Ukrainians.
According to Popenko, at this meeting, Nekrasov "tried to reach Karpov and understand him as a person, not as a man of the law”.
The role of Magnitsky is played by actor Yevhen Lunchenko from Kyiv's Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theater of Russian Drama. According to him, he got a call from the casting company when he was vacationing in Odesa. This seemed like a sign to him because this is where Magnitsky was born.
According to Lunchenko, during the filming, the director consulted with a lot of actors and stuntmen.
The scenes in the detention center were filmed in Lukyanivka prison and it took place in the fall of 2014. This is already in the midst of the fighting in the Donbas. We reached out to the penitentiary service for comment. They said the "story is about the fate of Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who paid with his life for exposing corruption."
A scene appears towards the end of the film which was originally very different. The movie shows Magnitsky negotiating with one of the defendants over embezzlement of company funds, instead of investigators Karpov and Kuznetsov. This is how the Russian director said he visualized the scene following his own investigation which he did while filming the movie. However, it turns out that both scenes were filmed at the same time.
Nekrasov’s premier of ‘The Magnitsky Act. Behind the Scenes’ was due to be held in the European Parliament. The initiator of the showing was the director and Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala, while the faction Greens / European Free Alliance sponsored it. Rebecca Harms, who led a political bloc, canceled the showing after learning about it later.
"I learned about this showing just a day before the event and was very surprised, because the Magnitsky sanctions list is very important, and I even had the opportunity to see the film and form an opinion about it, - says Harms. - However, German-French channel ARTE, which funded the production, said it did not bear legal responsibility for the showing. My parliamentary group also said it is not ready to bear legal liability. So the show was not held because the director was not ready to bear legal responsibility - without the support of the main producer"
Zoya Svetova believes that Nekrasov’s film was used to influence western public opinion to cancel the ‘Magnitsky Act’. Russian oligarchs, the siloviki - those on the list - are dissatisfied and would like to abolish the law.
"Many suspect that he (Nekrasov) was paid off: by either the Kremlin or by somebody else, — says Zoya Svetova. — I have no evidence to prove this. I think he believed that Browder was lying and he wanted to prove to the world what he learned. This man, who, at some point developed a narcissistic personality disorder and decided to prove to the world that he had uncovered Browder’s secret plot. He started tying legal factors to his plot which were inconsistent and essentially did not change anything.”
"This is a very sneaky film. It’s bad that Nekrasov turned a blind eye to the fact that he was used, Svetova says. “He was on a par with the Prosecutor General Chaika, who said that he "made a great move", and Mikhalkov. It’s a shame he presented Nekrasov’s film instead of talking about Sentsov. I'm sorry to see Nekrasov on the other side, the evil side. And he has admitted this as well. He said that it is easier to be on the victim’s side, and I'm on the other side."
"It's unbelievable - the fact that Russian propaganda material is created in Ukraine. I am sure many Ukrainians would not like it - like me. I think it was a purely commercial choice - probably the production and the actors were cheaper in Ukraine. But this is a huge contradiction and this problem concerns not only Magnitsky - Russia will use not only weapons but also propaganda. And the fact that it can be produced here in Ukraine is very upsetting to everyone who knows how hard Ukraine is fighting to keep Russia away from its borders”
"I was absolutely confident in the false position of the Russian law enforcement system and even of the Russian state — says Nekrasov. I always criticized it very harshly, even harsher than many of the current critics. So I believe Mr. Browder. But the knowledge I possess now is very painful. This conflict takes place inside my mind, and not only between Russia and the West."
The movie is not out on ZDF/ARTE. Despite Hromadske’s request, they refused to comment on the ongoing judicial investigation. The film’s screenings in Europe and the United States are also under question and Browder himself is waging a campaign against the film’s screening.
The film is available including Ukrainian online resources. Nekrasov said that he would like to show the film in Kyiv. But whether this will happen is yet to be seen.