By Tim Rich
The cries from the Matrosskaya Tishina Detention Centre will now be heard across the European Union.
It was here, deep inside a yellow and white building in Moscow the Czars once used as a lunatic asylum, that Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death while an ambulance crew was detained more than an hour outside his cell.
Magnitsky was a tax lawyer who ten years ago was investigating the theft of $230m from Hermitage Capital Management – one of the largest foreign investors in Russia.
Magnitsky himself was arrested and investigated by one of the men he suspected of being the principal perpetrators of the fraud, Artem Kuznetsov, a lieutenant-colonel in the Russian interior ministry.
In December 2012, President Barack Obama signed into law what became known as the Magnitsky Act that would freeze the assets and deny visas to those thought to have been implicated in Sergei Magnitsky’s death.
A second act, known as the Global Magnitsky Act, allows the president to issue travel bans and asset freezes against corruption and human rights abuses outside Russia.
Members of the Nicaraguan government and Maung Maung Soe, the Myanmar general accused of atrocities against the Rohingya population have all been sanctioned.
Last month, Donald Trump employed it against the 17 men accused of involvement in the murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
The United Kingdom, Canada and the Baltic States already have their version of the Magnitsky Act and it was surely time that the European Union, which has the power and the reach of the United States, adopted the same policy.
The decision, taken on Monday, to back the Dutch government’s longstanding demand for a Human Rights Entry Ban Commission that would freeze assets and deny travel to those suspected of human rights abuses and corruption is long overdue.
Coupled with the legislation in North America, it would deny travel and banking facilities across the western world to some of the worst abusers of human rights. It is not aimed at the leadership of these countries, the Vladimir Putins, the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia but at those who do their bidding.
When the original Magnitsky Act was passed, the human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, said: “it provides a way of getting at the Auschwitz train drivers, the apparatchiks, the people who make a little bit of money from human rights abuses.”
“A little bit of money” is an understatement. Artem Kuznetsov, Dmitry Klyuev, a rogue Russian banker, and their co-conspirators are alleged to have siphoned vast sums from Hermitage Capital.
A year after Magnitsky’s death, it was reported that Kuznetsov’s parents were now the proud owners of two Moscow apartments, worth $2.5m. His wife had just bought a Range Rover and a Mercedes sports car for more than $210,000. Kuznetsov’s official salary was $10,500 and before the fraud his parents had lived modestly.
There was always a European element to the Magnitsky affair. The conspirators are alleged to have met in Cyprus to have planned the fraud and much of the money has been funnelled through the European Union, especially Ireland.
When in 2013 the Irish government was on the point of implementing its own version of the Magnitsky Act, it proved insufficiently strong to resist Russian pressure.
The then Russian ambassador to Dublin, Maxim Peskov, warned that passing legislation ‘will not enrich bilateral Irish-Russian relations’ and threatened a ban on Irish families adopting Russian children.
A similar ban was imposed on the United States when the original Magnitsky Act was passed. There were other threats relating to Russian investment in Ireland. The Irish economy, then in the throes of deep recession, was in no condition to resist.
The proposed sanctions were dropped, causing Vladimir Kara-Murza, a member of the Co-ordinating Committee of the Russian Opposition, to accuse the Irish government of ‘giving into blackmail’.
It is relatively straightforward for Russia to attempt to blackmail a small nation, it is something else to attempt it against a confederation of 27 nations – as it will be when, if as expected, EU regulations come into force next summer.
Given that it could have been done without extra legislation, it is regrettable that a move towards a European version of the Magnitsky Act has taken so long.
A letter to media organisations signed by politicians across Europe, declared: “The Magnitsky Acts, which impose visa sanctions and asset freezes on human rights violators, have become emblematic in fighting impunity and kleptocracy around the world.
“In the 21st century, many human rights abuses are committed for financial gain. Targeting those abusers’ money abroad and their travel is one of the most effective ways of creating consequences.
“There can be no impunity for generals in Myanmar who hunt down Rohingyas, for arms dealers who breach the weapons embargo in South Sudan, the rapists in the Central African Republic or the killers of the Saudi journalist Khashoggi.”
The reference to South Sudan and the Central African Republic is significant. As former colonial powers in Africa; France, Portugal and Belgium are often the first port of call for the corrupt when it comes to hiding and spending their loot.
In 2012, the year the Magnitsky Act was signed into law in Washington, French police went to 42 Avenue Foch in Paris with its views of the Arc de Triomphe.
Inside this exclusive address, owned by Teodorin Obiang, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, they discovered 11 luxury cars, including two Bugatti Veyrons, a wardrobe full of clothes by Yves Saint Laurent, a spa room with jewel encrusted taps and a games room with 15,000 DVDs. Obiang’s salary as Equatorial Guinea’s agriculture minister was €3,200 a month. There are many, many more Teodorin Obiangs.
There are those who say that travel bans and denial of bank accounts is pinprick retaliation, especially those aimed at the apparatchiks of a rogue regime.
There is, however, considerable evidence that these regimes do care. Bans on foreign travel deny them access to their villas, to their bankers and to the easy routes to spend their fraudulently acquired money.
One of the targets of the Global Magnitsky Act was a Dominican Republic senator, Felix Bautista, who ran the ruling party, the LDP, as Organisation Secretary. Bautista was sanctioned for massive corruption both in his own country and in neighbouring Haiti.
In June, the Dominican Republic’s attorney general, Francisco Dominguez, demanded: ‘How can a person involved in so many scandals and pursued internationally be responsible for managing our party?” Shortly afterwards, Bautista resigned.
Putin has been wounded by the Magnitsky Act. The Washington Post reported that when Putin met Trump in Helsinki in July he made an extraordinary offer to the US President.
Putin suggested to Trump that he would help US investigators track down those accused of interfering with the 2016 presidential election, if Trump would help him prosecute Bill Browder.
Browder, whose grandfather ran for President on a Communist ticket in 1936 and 1940, owned Hermitage Capital Management, employed Magnitsky and was instrumental in proposing the Magnitsky legislation in the United States and the United Kingdom and the failed attempt to introduce in Ireland.
Browder has twice been arrested on an Interpol warrant requested by the Russian government and twice been released. If he ever returns to Russia, he believes, with good reason, that he is likely to be killed.
Boris Nemtsov, the assassinated Russian opposition leader, was an enthusiastic backer of the Magnitsky Act, calling it the ‘most pro-Russian legislation ever enacted by a foreign government’.
Nemtsov, who was shot on a bridge in central Moscow, accused Putin’s friends and by implication Putin himself, of being the ultimate beneficiaries of frauds such as Hermitage Capital. Had Sergei Magnitsky been allowed to follow the money, Nemtsov believed it would have led back to the Kremlin.
The Magnitsky Act works because it is a targeted sanction rather than the kind of blanket ban that invariably hits the poorest citizen of a rogue state. It is public and it is embarrassing. Even in a country with a media as tightly controlled as that of Russia, it has struck home.
The Auschwitz trains with their grisly cargo of dead bodies, looted assets and laundered money, are still driving but once the Magnitsky Act comes into force across Europe, there will be more and more buffers for them to hit.