On July 8th when the New York Times broke news about a meeting held at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a few Russians, the excuses came fast and furious. The first one had to do with adoption of Russian children. Trump Jr. said:
"We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.”
Seemingly innocuous, right? Well, not really. What he is referencing is actually Putin's retaliation to a law called the Magnitsky Law of 2012 which was set in motion after the death of a Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky. Here are the fast facts:
So who was this Russian lawyer and why do we care about his death?
Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, died in a Russian prison under extremely suspicious circumstances after uncovering a massive Kremlin-linked tax fraud scheme which he was investigating on behalf of Bill Browder.
Who is Bill Browder?
For years, Bill Browder, a long time Russian investor, uncovered massive corruption which he reported to the government. Most of the time it was handled. But when Putin took over, everything changed. The Atlantic reports that in July 2003, Putin took control of the oligarchs, demanding that they give him 50% of their money. From that point forward, Browder, anti corruption voice, was not welcome. Browder said that on November 13, 2005 he was detained at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, deported and declared "a threat to national security." A year and a half later, his offices in Moscow were raided by Interior Ministry officials. They stole numerous documents connected to the investment funds that his company held.
What did the Interior Ministry do and why is it important?
Browder hired Magnitsky to investigate what happened with these documents and the findings he reported to Browder were shocking: the officials re-registered the company to a man named Viktor Markelov, a known criminal convicted of manslaughter. Once re-registered, they were used to "misappropriate $230 million of taxes that [our] companies had paid to the Russian government in the previous year."
What did Magnitsky do with this information?
Browder and Magnitsky didn't think this was done at the behest of Putin, so they filed complaints with the legal authorities. Magnitsky gave sworn testimony to the Russian State Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI) and awaited arrests and convictions. Unfortunately, the person they arrested was Magnitsky.
What was the goal of arresting Magnitsky?
The officials wanted Magnitsky to withdraw his testimony against the corrupt government and sign a statement that it was he that stole the $230 million on Bill Browder's instruction. He refused.
What happened when he refused to lie?
The Russian government quite literally tortured Magnitsky to death, slowly, painfully and cruelly. The Atlantic reported:
"Sergei’s captors immediately started putting pressure on him to withdraw his testimony. They put him in cells with 14 inmates and eight beds, leaving the lights on 24 hours a day to impose sleep deprivation. They put him in cells with no heat and no windowpanes, and he nearly froze to death. They put him in cells with no toilet, just a hole in the floor and sewage bubbling up. They moved him from cell to cell in the middle of the night without any warning. During his 358 days in detention he was forcibly moved multiple times.
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.
At Butyrka, his health completely broke down. He was in agonizing pain. He and his lawyers wrote 20 desperate requests for medical attention, filing them with every branch of the Russian criminal justice system. All of those requests were either ignored or explicitly denied in writing.
After more than three months of untreated pancreatitis and gallstones, Sergei Magnitsky went into critical condition. The Butyrka authorities did not want to have responsibility for him, so they put him in an ambulance and sent him to another prison that had medical facilities. But when he arrived there, instead of putting him in the emergency room, they put him in an isolation cell, chained him to a bed, and eight riot guards came in and beat him with rubber batons.
That night he was found dead on the cell floor.
Sergei Magnitsky died on November 16, 2009, at the age of 37, leaving a wife and two children."
What happened to the guards that beat him to death?
You know the answer: Nothing. Some were charged, but everything was dropped.
What is the Magnitsky Act and how did it come about?
After Magnitsky's death (murder), Browder beat down the doors in Congress until he could get some justice for his colleague. He met with Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and shared the story. These two Senators were the pair who eventually introduced the Magnitsky Act.
The law was designed the punish the 18 Russian officials who were thought to be involved in some capacity in Magnitsky's death. It was further expanded to include 44 additional Russian citizens.
The text of the law reads: “It is the sense of Congress that the United States should continue to strongly support, and provide assistance to, the efforts of the Russian people to establish a vibrant democratic political system that respects individual liberties and human rights."
In November 2012 the Magnitsky Act passed the House of Representatives by 364 to 43 votes and later the Senate 92 to 4 votes.
Why does Putin care?
Those implicated in the Magnitsky Act cannot come to America or bank here. They can't bring their money here and many European banks will not work with clients who are banned in American banking systems.
What was Putin's response?
He was furious. Just two weeks after Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, Putin retaliated by blocking adoptions of Russian children by US citizens. Prior to this "adoption ban", American's had adopted over 46,000 Russian children between 1999 and 2012. Most of the children up for adoption have serious health, developmental and emotional issues, so cutting off their adoptions and leaving them in orphanages meant that many of them were denied medical and mental health care, and a large amount of them died in Russia.
Where are we now?
Clearly, Putin wants this overturned. He surely has lobbied the Trump administration to get this reversed so he and his friends can bring their money to America. Let's see how Trump responds.
Note: Browder testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and I encourage you to read his entire testimony located here.