Russian lawyer’s supporters say documentary is ‘full of lies’ and is an attempt to undermine White House sanctions. RFE/RL reports
А film about Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who died in prison after allegedly being tortured, is set to be shown in Washington after criticism and legal threats forced European TV channels to pull their broadcasts.
The private screening at the Newseum, scheduled for the 13 June, will be the latest skirmish in a battle over Magnitsky’s legacy, whose death led to the US launching sanctions against a host of Russian officials.
Magnitsky was working for British-American financier Bill Browder in 2008 when he accused law enforcement and tax officials of involvement in a scam that used Browder’s investment company, Hermitage Capital, to defraud the Russian treasury out of an estimated $230m.
Magnitsky was later arrested on fraud charges himself and was jailed in a notorious Moscow prison, where his supporters allege he was beaten and denied medical care, leading to his death in November 2009. His family and friends say he was targeted as retribution for blowing the whistle on the tax scam.
His death led Browder and others to lobby US Congress to pass a law in 2012 – known as the Magnitsky Act – that imposed visa bans and financial sanctions on Russian citizens allegedly involved in the fraud and Magnitsky’s death.
A Russian presidential commission in 2011 concluded that Magnitsky’s detention – and the decision by prison officials to deny him access to healthcare – amounted to torture. A report by the Council of Europe two years later supported those conclusions.
It had been scheduled to premiere at the European Parliament on the 27 April, but the showing was cancelled following complaints from Magnitsky’s relatives and former colleagues, as well as objections from European lawmakers.
Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament who also serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the push to screen the film for the chamber was one of several moves “by the Russian authorities” in order “to weaken western confidence in its policy line” and secure a review of EU sanctions against Russia later this year.
Another screening scheduled for early May on the Arte European TV channel was also cancelled after Browder sent the channel a list of “factual errors” and warned they would be legally accountable for knowingly broadcasting false statements.
Browder said in a statement on the 8 June that “the lies presented” in Nekrasov’s film “are not new, and are based on the past narrative from the Russian authorities who covered up the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and the criminals who stole $230m from the Russian people – the crime Magnitsky exposed.”
Nekrasov has produced several films highly critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin. He was a friend of former Russian Federal Security Service officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was killed by a radioactive substance in London in 2006. His 2007 documentary about that case premiered at the Cannes film festival and was shown in Moscow at the Sakharov human rights organisation.
In an interview in April, the director said he initially intended to make a film about how Magnitsky uncovered the tax fraud and was killed in order to silence him, but that his research later made him change his mind.
The film now asserts that Magnitsky was not beaten while in police custody, and that he did not make any specific allegations against individuals in his testimony to Russian authorities.
“I didn’t abandon that narrative easily because I was ideologically very close to Browder,” he said. “I was also a regime critic, honestly, on a lot of counts. But if we are not telling the truth, then it makes it easier for the bad guys to carry on doing their bad things.”
The screening at the Newseum is a private event, according to a spokeswoman for the privately funded museum, who directed press inquiries to the Potomac Square Group, a Washington-based lobbying and public relations company.
The company in turn deferred to Rinat Akhmetshin, who runs a Washington organisation called the International Eurasian Institute.
Akhmetshin said the screening was private due to copyright issues, and that invitees included congressional staffers as well as representatives from the US State Department, the White House’s National Security Council, and members of the media.
The screening will feature a discussion moderated by celebrated investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Speaking ahead of the event, Hersh confirmed he was moderating the event free of charge and said he had seen the film a couple months ago when he agreed to host the discussion.
“The film is very interesting,” Hersh said. “It’s hard to walk out of that film without thinking that Browder should be getting more heat than he’s gotten so far.”
The struggle over the screening comes as US lawmakers debate legislation modelled on the Magnitsky Act that would target human rights abusers worldwide. A House committee recently passed the legislation, though it’s unclear whether it will be taken up by the full House this year.
It also comes as the first legal proceedings are held in the US regarding alleged proceeds of the original $230m tax fraud.
A version of this article first appeared on RFE/RL