Russian investigators are launching a criminal probe against two prison officials for their suspected role in the death of a jailed lawyer, who claimed to have uncovered a $230 million tax fraud.
This the first time anyone has been directly named since Sergei Magnitsky died in November 2009 after the pancreatitis he developed in prison went untreated. But the announcement has done little to appease the lawyer's supporters, who accuse the authorities of failing to investigate the real culprits.
Russian officials had previously insisted that the lawyer had died of heart failure, before backtracking in early July to say the doctors were likely to blame.
The Investigative Committee said in a statement Monday that the probe would focus on Larisa Litvinova, chief physician at the Butyrskaya prison in Moscow, and the prison's deputy chief Dmitry Kratov. They are suspected of negligence that led to death.
Investors working in Russia have said the lawyer's death highlights corruption in the judicial system and presents a litmus test for President Dmitry Medvedev's pledge to cement the rule of law in the country.
Magnitsky, who had worked for Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund owned and run by U.S.-born investor William Browder, had accused Interior Ministry officers of seizing ownership documents of three of its subsidiaries in 2007, then using those documents to register their own people as owners.
They then filed a tax claim, declaring a much smaller profit than originally reported and asked for a tax return, he said in testimony. The total return was 5.4 billion rubles ($230 million at the time).
Magnitsky was arrested for tax evasion by the same police officials he had accused of the tax fraud.
Magnitsky spent four of the last months of his life at Butyrskaya, during which time his family and supporters say he was never properly examined by a doctor. They say Kratov ignored Magnitsky's pleas for medical assistance and surgery for three months.
He was, however, examined just hours before he died.
Browder, who has since been barred from Russia as a security risk, told The Associated Press that the doctors were clearly following the instructions of the investigators in the case and "others higher up".
"The Russian government are desperately trying to create the appearance that they are doing something here, without going after the real guilty parties," he said.
Prominent human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina told the Interfax news agency that investigators ought to open a probe not only into the negligence that caused the death, but also into torture.
The Investigative Committee said its is still looking into the case and "does not rule out criminal probes against other officials irrespective of their current and former positions."
Kratov and Litvinova are two of 60 Russian officials Browder and his supporters consider complicit in Magnitsky's death.
Lawmakers in the Netherlands earlier this month voted in favor of a resolution demanding the government slap a travel ban on the officials. The U.S. Senate is working on similar legislation.