In Russia, they do the gangster government thing a little differently than in the United States. Over the past six months, New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera has written three columns — here, here, and here — about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oligarch who has been in prison since 2003, charged, tried, convicted — and recently reconvicted — on transparently bogus tax and embezzlement charges.
Yesterday Nocera returned to the Khodorkovsky case in “Why Kkodorkovsky matters.” Nocera explains that he keeps returning to the case because “Khodorkovsky’s fate stands as a powerful illustration of Russia’s biggest problem: the contempt the country’s corrupt rulers have for the rule of law.”
It’s a column in which William Browder, the son of the former head of the American Communist Party, takes center stage. As a successful investor in Russian companies, Browder was mugged by the Russian government and its friends. Enter Browder’s Russian lawyers:
Browder. . . hired seven lawyers to help try to untangle the mess. One of them, Sergei Magnitsky, doggedly pursued the fraud, bringing it to the attention of other government officials, and even testified against those who had been the ringleaders. “He said we should bring complaints because it was so obviously a rogue operation,” says Browder.
In fact, there was nothing rogue about it; this was how Russia’s plutocrats now operated. Instead, Browder’s lawyers were the ones feeling the heat, and six of the seven fled Russia. Magnitsky, 36, with a young family, refused Browder’s entreaties to leave as well.
Magnitsky today is dead. He was arrested in 2008 — on “tax evasion” charges — and sent to prison. Held without so much as a hearing, his health deteriorated. In August 2009, a week before a scheduled surgery, he was transferred to a prison that lacked hospital facilities. He died three months later. This week, in a final indignity, Oleg Silchenko, the Interior Ministry official most directly responsible for Magnitsky’s detention and ongoing abuse in prison, was officially exonerated for his role in the case.
“Sergei wasn’t an oligarch,” says Browder. “He wasn’t a human rights activist. He was just a guy doing his job. His mistake was having the wrong client.”
And that’s the real point, isn’t it? Khodorkovsky’s illegal jailing leads, inevitably, to Magnitsky’s death. It leads the powerful to have troublesome journalists beaten or killed with no consequences. It allows plutocrats to steal companies from shareholders, to jail whistle-blowers, to extort with impunity. The rule of law either applies to everyone or no one. You can’t carve out exceptions.
Nocera has yet another related column scheduled to run on Tuesday.