Nikolai Gorokhov, the lawyer for the family of Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison, says Russia would like the world to forget about him.
“They want Sergei Magnitsky’s name consigned to oblivion,” he told CNN in a rare interview in Moscow.
But it’s clear that’s not working.
Recent revelations that the son of then-US Presidential candidate Donald Trump met with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in June 2016 have thrust Magnitsky’s death – and the subsequent sanctions that the US imposed on Russian individuals – back into the spotlight. Veselnitskaya has lobbied to overturn those sanctions, a key priority for the Russian government, although she says she has no links to the Kremlin.
This attention, Gorokhov says, is crucial to Magnitsky’s case. “It shows that even if justice can’t be found in Russia, this justice will be found outside of Russia.”
Sergey Magnitsky’s 2009 death sparked a bitter row between Russia and the US that remains unresolved.
Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer working for Hermitage Capital, an investment firm run by American-born financier Bill Browder, uncovered a $230 million tax fraud. He also discovered evidence Russian government officials were involved in carrying it out, and then covering it up.
Soon after he made those revelations public in 2008, Magnitsky was arrested on separate tax fraud charges. He died a year later, while still in pre-trial detention. His family says he was denied crucial medical care and a Russian presidential human rights commission report found evidence that he had been beaten on the day he died. The Russian government has never admitted any crime was committed, saying he died of heart failure.
In the US, Magnitsky’s employer Browder launched a public campaign, lobbying Congress to introduce a law sanctioning individuals in Russia suspected of involvement in Magnitsky’s death and other human-rights violations.
US lawmakers passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 to punish the Russians they saw as responsible for his death.
Two weeks after the Magnitsky Act was passed, Moscow banned American adoptions of Russian children in apparent retaliation. Both measures are still in place.
Gorokhov, Magnitsky’s family lawyer, knows what’s at stake. In March 2017, he fell from the fourth floor balcony of his Moscow apartment block and sustained serious head injuries. A scar is still visible on his forehead.
He says he regained consciousness in intensive care but doesn’t remember what happened, saying it’s possible he was targeted.
“I can suppose that it wasn’t an accident because the set of circumstances suggest it,” he said.
At the time of his fall, Gorokhov’s six-year battle to find justice for the Magnitsky family was reaching a critical point. The day after his fall, Gorokhov was due to present new evidence to a Moscow court that he says proved direct coordination between an organized crime group and Russian interior ministry officials to cover up Magnitsky’s death and the tax fraud he had exposed. One court had already refused to look at new evidence.
Gorokhov didn’t make it to that hearing, but he did eventually make it to court in May, where he was still suffering the effects of his injuries. His appeal was abruptly rejected.
The Prevezon Case
And there’s another twist. Gorokhov was set to be a key witness in a related case scheduled for May 2017. Then US Attorney Preet Bharara had alleged that Cyprus-based company Prevezon had used some of the proceeds of the $230 million tax fraud Magnitsky had uncovered to buy New York real estate.
Over the course of the Magnitsky case investigation, Gorokhov had photographed documents that were useful to US prosecutors.
In 2015, Gorokhov had traveled to New York to give a deposition about the photographic evidence.
According to an official document unsealed in April, and first reported by CNN, it is now clear that US prosecutors were concerned for Gorokhov’s safety. When Gorokhov eventually returned to Moscow, US prosecutors wanted to avoid him having to come back to testify at trial.
“The Government has strong concerns that now that Mr. Gorokhov’s identity has been revealed,” the letter states, “individuals in Russia could attempt to threaten or harm Mr. Gorokhov and his family in an effort to prevent Mr. Gorokhov from testifying at trial.”
That trial never happened. The case was settled out of court this May with Prevezon never admitting any wrongdoing.
One of Prevezon’s lawyers was Veselnitskaya.
In 2014, Veselnitskaya went on Russian TV claiming Magnitsky was not murdered or tortured, and that he never uncovered any tax fraud.
In a letter to Veselnitskaya’s office, Gorokhov wrote “the information you’ve spread categorically contradicts reality and is offensive to Magnitsky’s relatives.” Gorokhov says Veselnitskaya didn’t respond to his request to back up her assertions.
Gorokhov says he does worry about his safety, and that of his family. He says he tries not to talk to his wife about his work, so as not to worry her.
And yet he is resolved to keep going.
“We continue to fight for the truth, we appeal to judicial authorities, the Investigative Committee, the Prosecutor General, because time reveals new proof of Sergei’s innocence”.
There’s no question as to why.
“Justice,” he says. “Sergei Magnitsky deserves justice.”