LONDON – Over the last decade, slain Russians and the British capital have often gone hand in hand. The sinister relationship began with the 2006 radioactive poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko; it continued with the sudden death in 2012 of whistle-blower Alexander Perepilichny and its ongoing investigation.
The city is also home to Russian dissidents, many of whom gathered in Westminster on Monday for the inaugural ceremony of the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards, named for the lawyer who died in a Russian jail exactly six years earlier. Friends and family say that Magnitsky, 37, was tortured and beaten to death in 2009 after he accused authorities of significant fraud. Three years later, Russian President Vladimir Putin called his death a tragedy, yet maintains that Magnitsky died of natural causes.
Nine awards in his name were given to lawyers, activists, journalists and Western politicians, including Canadian human rights activist and former Justice Minister and Irwin Cotler and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern. Prominent Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin in February, was posthumously awarded a prize for Campaigning for Democracy.
The man behind the awards is London-based American Bill Browder, whose firm Hermitage Capital was once the biggest foreign investor in the Russian stock market. Browder was expelled from Russia in 2005, after a vociferous campaign against state-sanctioned corruption. Hermitage was later embroiled in a tax-fraud case worth $230 million. While Browder managed to get most of his employees out of Russia in the years that followed, Magnitsky, his lawyer, refused to leave on the grounds that the rule of law should reign supreme.
Browders campaigning after Magnitskys death led to the passage in 2012 of the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. law prohibits Russian officials Washington believes were involved in his death from entering the United States or using its banking system. There are currently 34 names on the list. Browder is pressing for similar legislation in Europe and elsewhere.
Moscow was outraged by the law, and responded with its own sanctions. In 2013 a Russian court convicted Browder and Magnitsky, the latter posthumously, of tax evasion.
Browder spent most of last summer speaking to Hollywood studios, screenwriters and producers to push for the making of a movie based on his best-selling memoir, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Mans Fight for Justice.
If you really want to change the world, you do it through Hollywood, he told Haaretz. Browder still owns the rights, and said the film is most likely at least a couple of years away.
While the passage of the Magnitsky Act has meted out some justice, the shadow of impunity cast over Nemtsovs murder only widened.
Nemtsov fought his entire life for a democratic future for Russia and he, too, died in this struggle, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky said as he presented the award to Nemtsovs 31-year-old daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, who has fled Russia for Germany since her fathers death.. Kremlin critics believe Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Putin, was killed for possessing information on Russias alleged involvement in the war in Ukraine.
Denying any involvement, the Kremlin called Nemtsovs death an audacious murder that was designed to discredit Putin by strengthening his opponents.
Earlier this month, Russian investigators charged, in absentia, Ruslan Mukhutdinov, a former member of the security services in Russias volatile Muslim-majority Chechnya region, with organizing Nemtsovs murder. Five other Chechens are currently in prison for carrying out the killing. A Russian manhunt is under way for Mukhutdinov, whom authorities believe could be hiding in Dubai. On Thursday, a Moscow court will examine the charges against Mukhutdinov. Russian authorities have charged ethnic Chechens in other murders of Kremlin foes.
But those who ordered Nemtsovs killing remain at large, meaning real justice is as elusive as ever. As with other high-profile murders on Russian soil, such as those of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and of rights activist Natalia Estemirova in 2009, hit men and organizers are found and jailed, but when it comes to who ordered the hit, a large question mark remains. Russias investigative committee wants the Nemtsov case closed by February 28 of next year.
Nemtsovs trial is way worse than Magnitskys, Browder later told Haaretz, adding that though the Russian government chose to ignore it, he and his associates had accumulated an overwhelming amount of evidence that proved Magnitsky was beaten to death under orders from Putin.
In Nemtsovs case Russian law enforcement controls all the evidence and they are going to keep covering it up, making it more difficult to prove that he was murdered by the Putin regime.
Nemtsovs murder shocked ordinary Russians with its brazenness; it also sent bolts of fear through Russias small but stalwart opposition, both at home and abroad.
On Monday, Khodorkovsky stressed that Russia one day will be a democratic country. But for that to happen, there always have to be people who, despite the risks, will continue this fight. Now living on the outskirts of London, Khodorkovsky spent 10 years behind Russian bars on charges of tax evasion that he says were politically motivated. Despite Putins popularity being at a record high (at least according to government-funded polls), cracks in his 15-year tenure are beginning to appear. Painful Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine are taking their toll on ordinary citizens, and rumors have begun to swirl over his succession plans, of which the 63-year-old officially has none.
Khodorkovsky told Haaretz that it is very clear that a civil war is one of the possible options in the development of this situation, but added that the opposition very much hopes this will not be allowed to happen.