Background: The Magnitsky case | Den norske Helsingforskomité

Background: The Magnitsky case

The story that did not go away.

The story of Sergei Magnitsky’s death on 16 November 2009 became for many in the west, an allegory of Vladimir Putin’s Russia – brutal, oppressive and corrupt.

The 37-year-old accountant was found dead, his body bearing bruises, in a Moscow prison cell having been detained for nearly a year over accusations of tax evasion. His real crime, say supporters, was exposing a $230 million theft from the Russian treasury by officials linked to a criminal gang.” (Financial Times, June 12, 2016)


The story has been vehemently challenged by Russian authorities, in particular in relation to prospects of Western countries imposing targeted sanctions. In 2012, the US Congress adopted the Magnitsky Act despite strong reactions from the Russian government. The act bans entry into the US and freeze assets of individuals involved in the crimes against Magnitsky as well as other perpetrators of gross violations of human rights against whistle-blowers and human rights defenders. Currently there are 44 names on the public part of the US Magnitsky list.

 On 8 December 2016, the US Congress passed an expanded version of the Magnitsky Act, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Based on this act, the US may impose sanctions on corrupt or human rights violating officials from any country where they commit such crimes with impunity. Two European countries, Estonia and the UK, have recently enacted similar legislation. Canada and Lithuania may be the next countries to enact similar measures.

 The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), of the OSCE, and the European Parliament and some national parliaments have asked for Magnitsky sanctions to be established by European countries.

Legal actions

In addition to targeted sanctions, legal actions and investigations are under way in a range of countries in connection with laundering of proceeds from the tax fraud that Magnitsky exposed. In May 2017, a settlement worth $6 million was reached in the US between Prevezon Holding and the US state in relation to money laundering.

Many human rights organizations see these developments as important progress for the international fight against impunity for human rights violations. They argue that Magnitsky sanctions – although limited in scope – ensures that there will not be total impunity for serious crimes committed to silence human rights defenders or whistle-blowers.

Critical voices

There are, however, also critical voices against Magnitsky sanctions. Russian state representatives, including President Vladimir Putin, have denied any wrongdoing on the part of Russian officials in the Magnitsky case. They underline that it is not up toforeigncountries to judge on its domestic human rights issues. A 2016 Norwegian documentary,the Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenesby Andrej Nekrasov, a Russian-born director, criticised the US legislation, claiming it was based on a falsified story of Magnitsky being killed as a whistle-blower.

 On this background, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee will host an international Hearing to shed light on the Magnitsky case, present similar cases from other countries, as well as arguments and viewpoints on global Magnitsky sanctions as a new way for democratic countries to fight human rights abuses in corrupt and authoritarian states.

Magnitsky case definition

Global Magnitsky human rights sanctions prohibit entry and freeze assets of officials who commit gross violations of human rights with impunity; the victims beinghuman rights defendersorwhistle-blowers. The abuses are often intended to silence the victims, in order to conceal corruption, fraud or other economic criminality.

Gross violations of human rights include:

  •   Torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  •   Prolonged detention without charge or trial
  •   Involuntary disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those
  •   Obvious violation of the right to life, liberty or security of person
  •   Extrajudicial executions
  •   Politically motivated rape.

 Resource documents include:

–        NHC Policy Paper 2-2015: Norway and other democratic states should establish global Magnitsky mechanisms

–        NHC application for criminal investigation in Norway of those suspected of torturing and killing Sergei Magnitsky

–        Webpage of the Justice for Magnitsky Campaign

–        Presentation of some of the international initiatives

–        Why Europe Needs a Magnitsky Law: Should the EU follow the US?