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Posted at 7:54 AM ET, 12/23/2010

Above the Russian Law

By Ian Shapira

Sergei L. Magnitsky, 37, a married Russian yuppie, was a well-off political dissident. But when he made the mistake of accusing police of a huge tax fraud, he apparently breached an extremely sensitive wall, and got arrested. As he awaited trial in the Butyrskaya Prison, Magnitsky mysteriously died in 2009.

Today's New York Times features a front-page investigation into the various investigations of Magnitsky's death, exposing the maddening if not willfully deceitful elements of Russia's criminal justice system. Ellen Barry, the the Times reporter, takes a complicated case and weaves a smooth narrative detailing how a powerless body of prison oversight officials -- led by a human rights activist veteran -- tried investigating Magnitsky's death.

Barry captures some of the more despairing moments of Magnitsky's life in prison:

Mr. Magnitsky was allowed only one visit with his wife and mother for the full 11 months he was in custody; they attended court hearings so they could stare at him from across the room. He passed the time by reading Shakespeare’s tragedies. When overcome with anxiety or despair, a cellmate later said, he would turn his face to the wall, as if he wanted it to swallow him up.

The reporting for this story must have been extremely difficult. But Barry was able to persuade the deputy head of the prison's oversight panel to talk; he delivered a stream of revelatory anecdotes showing how the Russian justice system truly works. Sadly, the causes of Magnitsky's death remain murky. Pancreatitis? Acute psychosis? Heart failure? Something else? No one really knows for sure.

By Ian Shapira  | December 23, 2010; 7:54 AM ET
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