Time magazine reports:
Since his first meeting with Kremlin leaders in Moscow last July, President Barack Obama has established a dialogue with Russia over some critical issues — Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear arms reduction, missile defense — and all of these have yielded progress, even if meager and tentative. But when it came time last week for an unprecedented meeting — involving Russian and American officials, along with human-rights advocates — to discuss the issue of human rights, the dialogue with the Kremlin hit a wall. The Russian side came away pleased that there had been no criticism from the Americans, none of the condescension they remember from the Bush years. The American side, for its part, seemed content to have raised these issues, showing that they have not forgotten them in their eagerness to be friends again. Still, for the rights activists who were at the the table — a presence that was historic — the whole process seemed little more than unproductive political theater.
The meeting’s location, which was chosen by the Kremlin, was about as poignant a symbol of Russia’s past rights abuses as one could find outside the Gulags. Standing about 100 miles east of Moscow, Vladimir Central Prison housed some of the Soviet Union’s most prominent political prisoners, including the activist Vladimir Bukovsky, several of Stalin’s relatives, and the American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Also hovering over last week’s talks was a much more recent prison scandal. Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who once represented an American investment fund in Russia, had died six months before, on Nov. 16, after being refused medical treatment for months at Moscow’s Butyrka prison. He had been awaiting trial on tax fraud charges for nearly a year.(See the dangers of doing business in Russia.)
What follows are two articles from the Western press documenting, each in its own way, the rise of the neo-Soviet Gulag prison system, where anyone the Kremlin doesn’t care for can be tortured into oblivion.
First, Russia reporter Amy Knight, writing in the New York Review of Books online:
The horrors of Soviet prisons and labor camps were described vividly in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind, and later, by the Soviet dissident and former political prisoner Anatoly Marchenko, in his 1969 memoir, My Testimony. To judge from a disturbing new report about the tragic death of 37-year-old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in late November, Russia’s current penal system is almost as bad as it used to be.
As was the case under Stalin and his successors, the treatment of prisoners reflects the deeper problems of a politicized law enforcement system that routinely disregards human rights. Now, the Magnitsky case seems to have persuaded Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to begin to address these problems—though his powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has a vested interest in preserving the status quo.
Magnitsky's mother with a photo of her departed beloved
The Associated Press reports:
The letters are neatly folded and written on soft white paper in a confident, elegant hand. They tell a story of horror in the bowels of the Russian prison system, a saga set against the backdrop of the world of multibillion-dollar investment funds in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for a London-based fund that was once the biggest in Russia, wrote to his mother of wasting away from an agonizing illness without proper medical care in a crowded Moscow prison cell that reeked of sewage.
Just 11 days after the last letter reached her, Magnitsky died while awaiting trial on tax-evasion charges. He was 37.
Magnitsky’s story hit a nerve in Russia, where memories linger of the millions who died of cold, starvation and neglect in the harsh Soviet gulag. Two of Russia’s biggest independent business dailies ran a front-page story when he died, and President Dmitry Medvedev has called for an investigation. One prison official has accepted some responsibility for the squalid conditions.
In an exclusive interview, Magnitsky’s mother showed The Associated Press a series of letters from her son detailing his ordeal in Butyrskaya prison, notorious for its harsh conditions.