The tragic story behind the Magnitsky Act

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A dispatch from the era of alternative facts…  This week, I’ve been reading Congressional testimony.  (I should point out — something I don’t normally do. Desperate times.)

With everything on Russia swirling around, we’ve heard by now about the Magnitsky Act — which is often mentioned in the same breath as Russian adoptions.

News articles quote Russia experts who tell us talking about Russian adoptions is really talking about the Act.

Intuitively, you know this is right. Because why is Putin so concerned about adoptions of Russian children by Americans? It doesn’t fit with what we know about him. And also this: If adoptions were such a concern of Putin’s, he could change the law in Russia and permit them to go forward. He’s the one preventing the adoptions.

There’s something to unravel there.

Luckily, on July 27th, someone helped unravel it by testifying before Congress — and told the extremely alarming history behind the Magnitsky Act as well as covert efforts to overturn the Act by rewriting that history, here in the US.

The testimony was by Bill Browder, a financier who hired lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a 35-year old father of two, to investigate Russian corruption that was harming Browder’s companies.

We filed criminal complaints with every law enforcement agency in Russia, and Sergei gave sworn testimony to the Russian State Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI) about the involvement of officials in this crime.

As it turned out, although he didn’t appreciate it at the time, Magnitsky had uncovered corruption going to the highest level of government — Putin.  Obviously, Magnitsky (not Putin) had to be stopped. Magnitsky was arrested and jailed in shocking conditions: 14 inmates to a room with 8 bunks, with the lights on 24 hours a day to impose sleep deprivation. Among other things.

After six months of this mistreatment, Sergei’s health seriously deteriorated. He developed severe abdominal pains, he lost 40 pounds, and he was diagnosed with pancreatitis and gallstones and prescribed an operation for August 2009. However, the operation never occurred. A week before he was due to have surgery, he was moved to a maximum security prison called Butyrka, which is considered to be one of the harshest prisons in Russia. Most significantly for Sergei, there were no medical facilities there to treat his medical conditions.

Sergei Magnitsky died soon after.

Browder’s written remarks submitted in advance of his testimony go on to explain how Browder sought justice for Magnitsky — finally finding it when he told the story to two US senators. Outraged, they came up with the Magnitsky Act. Justice couldn’t be served in Russia for Magnitsky’s torture and murder, but something could be done here. Under the Act, the US-based assets of Russian oligarchs involved in his murder and the underlying corruption he uncovered would be frozen.

As it turned out, Putin was one of those oligarchs. And most of his money is here in the West.

One measure Putin took in retaliation was to stop all adoptions of Russian children by Americans. And here’s an important point that I haven’t seen made before: Americans had been allowed to adopt only seriously ill Russian children, who the state couldn’t afford to adequately care for. Most died in Russian state care before turning 18. These are kids with HIV, Down syndrome, Spina Bifida.

In other words, Putin retaliated by cutting off adoptions that enabled these kids, Russian kids, to survive, and to live humanely.

That was the official response. Unofficially, Putin also began an influence campaign here in the US that sought to smear Magnitsky, to say he had been a criminal, not a lawyer, and to undercut everything Browder had said.

A campaign to rewrite history, which is an important key to retaining state power.

If someone controls facts, they control thoughts as well. If facts are not based on reality, then they can be manipulated so as to produce certain conclusions, judgments, emotions in the minds of the people — that then spur us to take this or that action.

This is why the “fake news” outcries — which are efforts to undercut reality and call fact, fiction, and fiction, fact — should be so alarming to us. Because even if it’s happening on minor things, like whether the President really did have a contentious call with the Australian Prime Minister, it matters in a big way. We’re gradually shedding the value that honesty is a goal in itself, that lying is bad. We’re treating the ability to say what the facts are as a prize won in a Twitter battle.

From 1984:

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

“Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”

You should read the full written remarks, which were submitted in advance of Browder’s testimony. It tells the sordid story from start to finish.

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