Who was Sergei Magnitsky and how did UK sanctions come about?

Luke Harding
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP</span>
Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Who was Sergei Magnitsky?

Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer and tax auditor hired to investigate a particularly murky case of corruption. In 2007 a group of interior ministry officials managed to obtain a $230m rebate from the Russian state. They had fraudulently taken over three companies belonging to Hermitage Capital, an asset management firm. Most Hermitage staff fled abroad but Magnitsky stayed in Moscow and figured out the scam. The officials he accused had Magnitsky arrested and thrown in jail, where prison guards beat him up. He died in custody in 2009 after being refused medical treatment or family visits. He was 37.

How did the UK’s Magnitsky law come about?

Related: 'Magnitsky sanctions': who are those being targeted by UK?

The success of the Magnitsky campaign is largely down to Bill Browder, Hermitage’s chief executive, who drove an international campaign to hold those responsible for Magnitsky’s death to account. Browder’s strategy was innovative. Realising there was zero prospect that the perpetrators would be punished in Russia, he pushed for asset freezes and travel bans abroad. Many Kremlin officials are extremely rich, and Browder calculated that depriving them of their wealth and ability to visit Europe and the US would hurt.

Where has the Magnitsky legislation been adopted?

The US Congress passed the first Magnitsky legislation in 2012. The law infuriated Vladimir Putin, who responded by banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans. Washington has subsequently broadened the list of sanctioned human rights abusers, adding individuals from Iraq, Myanmar and South Sudan. Several EU countries bordering Russia have followed suit with their own Magnitsky acts, including Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as Canada and Kosovo. Australia is debating legislation. The EU agreed last December to enact a Magnitsky law but has yet to follow through because of the coronavirus crisis.

Why has Dominic Raab acted now?

Raab, the foreign secretary, has been engaged in the Magnitsky campaign for eight years, since his time on the backbenches. He paid tribute on Monday to cross-party colleagues who have long pushed for legislation, including the Labour MP Chris Bryant. Raab claimed on Monday the new law was an example of a post-Brexit “global Britain” acting as a force for good in the world. In fact, the UK could have enacted its own legislation earlier. All three Baltic states mentioned above have already passed laws while being in the EU.

Who isn’t on the list?

The government has so far taken action only against individuals involved in notorious and egregious cases. Critics say many high-profile perpetrators in Russia and elsewhere are not on the list. Those who are on the list are relatively minor figures. There is a compelling case for extending legislation to oligarchs and other Kremlin-connected people, some of whom own extensive assets in London. It remains to be seen whether Boris Johnson has the appetite to clamp down on dirty money coming into the UK from Moscow. There are also questions about whether senior Chinese officials should be targeted next for their role in suppressing protests in Hong Kong.