A new movie purporting to “expose” the real truth about the death of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison was screened in Washington, DC yesterday.
The invitation-only event took place at the Newseum after a screening of the film—The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes—was cancelled in the EU Parliament, at a movie festival in Norway, and on the ARTE TV channel. Relatives and former colleagues of Magnitsky complained to the EU authorities, asking them to not screen what they called a fraudulent movie, and the Hermitage Capital CEO William Browder sent ARTE a list of factual errors contained in the movie and threatened to sue the channel for knowingly broadcasting false statements.
The hosts of the event expected 110 guests and about 80 percent of them showed up. RFE/RL reported that the screening was organized by the Potomac Square Group, a Washington-based lobbying and public relations company.
Earlier in May, the Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss pointed out that the Kremlin’s lobbying efforts to have the Magnitsky Act repealed have been recently redoubled. Weiss:
As one U.S. official put it privately, the current messaging is being “led by ogres out of central casting. They’re saying, ‘You repeal Magnitsky and we’ll let go of the kids.’ And it’s not even American kids. It’s their own. And they’re kids with Down syndrome and spina bifida.”
Weiss also noted that a recent four person codel to Moscow had taken place, led by Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a longtime admirer and friend of Vladimir Putin. The delegates were apparently given a letter marked “confidential”. The paper carried a litany of serious allegations against Browder, Magnitsky, Hermitage, and one of its U.S. investors.
The film’s screening in D.C. appears to have been designed to further influence U.S. politicians to consider repealing the Magnitsky Act, a bipartisan law that sanctions several high-ranking Russian official in connection to Magnitsky’s death, preventing them from traveling to the United States and the use of the U.S. banking system.
After a brief reception, journalist Seymour Hersh gave a short introduction, and the movie, directed by the controversial Russian director Andrei Nekrasov, began.
The first part of the film—approximately 30 minutes out of a total of 150—was made up of a series of staged scenes, based on true events. After Hermitage’s offices in Moscow were raided by the police and the company’s title was seized, Browder is shown assigning auditor and lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to investigate what exactly happened to his firm. Magnitsky discovers a large-scale theft of taxes from the Russian federal budget, totaling a handsome $230 million. These funds, Magnitsky comes to believe, were fraudulently taken out of the taxes previously paid by Hermitage. After the raids, the police appear to have handed seized documents to organized criminals, who then used them to take over three of Hermitage’s Russian companies. Those companies then manage to claim these taxes as refunds.
Magnitsky files a statement with the police alleging criminal wrongdoing, and shortly thereafter is arrested. He is put in the infamous Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow, held with ten other people in a cell built for four. The police severely beat Magnitsky and torture him in an attempt to get him to recant his statement. Magnitsky repeatedly asks for medical help, but he does not receive the proper attention. After 11 months in detention, Sergei Magnitsky dies in his cell. A number of reports by respected Russian human rights advocates proved that Magnitsky was beaten and tortured to death in prison.
This is where Nekrasov breaks with the narrative structure of the movie, and starts to discover “the truth”. The movie switches from a sort of reenacted documentary to what purports to be a piece of investigative journalism. What first strikes the director is the fact, proven by written evidence and photographs, that Magnitsky was being beaten while handcuffed. Nekrasov interviews several “experts” and prison workers, and asks them why seven policemen might handcuff a single prisoner while beating him. The experts testify that usually, a person being beaten by seven policemen in a Russian prison is not handcuffed. The handcuff issue leads Nekrasov to conclude that despite the horrible conditions in Russian prisons, Magnitsky was treated no better and no worse than anybody else. Magnitsky died of natural causes, Nekrasov alleges, not because of beatings and torture.
Nekrasov even enlists Magnitsky’s own mother to make his case. Natalia Magnitskaya says that for her, as a mother, it would be easier to imagine that her son was not beaten to death but rather died of natural causes. Through clever editing, Nekrasov uses the grief of a woman for her son to further his ends. (I spoke to several people who attended the screening afterwards, and the consensus was that this was by far the most outrageous and disgraceful part of the film.)
Bill Browder published a full list of falsehoods contained in the film on his website, with evidence rebutting each of the film’s claims, and I would encourage all those interested to review Browder’s document. I just want to dwell on one key argument leveled by Nekrasov which he claims proves that Browder and Magnitsky lied about the tax theft and the company raids: In the course of the film, Nekrasov “discovers” that while Browder had always claimed that Magnitsky had directly named the two officers from the Russian Interior Ministry—Mayor Pavel Karpov and Lieutenant-Colonel Artem Kuznetsov—in his testimony, in truth there is not a single mention of these two officers in Magnitsky’s deposition. Nekrasov repeatedly says this in his movie, claiming that all the accusations of the lawyer’s death, and all allegations about tax theft against Russian authorities, were built on Browder’s false statements.
Nekrasov is so brazenly confident in the film on this point that even I had started to believe him. But then I did a simple thing: I googled Magnitsky’s testimony. It took me two minutes to realize that the names of both Karpov and Kuznetsov are mentioned more than a dozen times in all three of Magnitsky’s testimonies, scanned and published on the web.
The investigation into the recent Panama Papers leaks clearly lays out how Vladimir Putin’s good cellist friend Sergei Roldugin received $230 million in an an offshore bank account just around the time that Magnitsky alleged the tax fraud was taking place. This inconvenient fact ruins Nekrasov’s narrative, which closely hews to the Russian authorities’ official line: In 2013, a court in Moscow found Magnitsky guilty of tax evasion in a posthumous trial; Bill Browder was found guilty of evading some $17 million in taxes. Nekrasov of course dismisses the Panama Papers investigation out of hand, claiming once again that it somehow relies on Browder’s false testimony for its conclusions. Indeed, that is the whole point of the film: to convince the U.S. government that it should repeal the Magnitsky Act because U.S. lawmakers were actively deceived.
Is the plan working? Though it’s hard to tell right away, word is that the film has not made much of an impact on Congress. Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, who testified today at Congressional hearings on Russia sanctions, was asked afterwards by a journalist about the allegations in the film. He said that he had carefully studied all the facts pertaining to the Magnitsky case while he was Ambassador, and was convinced that there was no conspiracy or deception going on. Andrei Nekrasov was present at the same hearings; he was accompanied by his cameraman who apparently was shooting a new exposé of some sort. After the hearings Nekrasov interviewed Dana Rohrabacher.
The screening at the Newseum ended with several members of the audience—myself included—whistling and booing.