The Russians murdered my husband – and I could be next: Widow of Kremlin whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky reveals she fled to London in fear of her life

Mail on Sunday

The contents of the food parcel Natasha Magnitsky packed for husband Sergei were achingly spare: tea, sugar, biscuits and bread, a few carrots and turnips to bolster his prison diet, and some caramel as a treat. But when she attempted to hand them in at the little hatch in Moscow’s notorious Butyrka prison, a female official snapped: ‘No, he’s gone.’

Terrified that Butyrka’s squalid conditions – raw sewage running through the cells, a shift system for beds – had made him sick, Sergei’s mother Nataliya dashed to Matrosskaya Tishina, a prison in northern Moscow where there was a medical unit, while Natasha went to work.

At the prison, the official at the parcel desk was rather more specific: Sergei, an accountant who’d blown the whistle on a £150 million corruption scandal that stopped at the door of the Kremlin, was dead.
‘We had been a fortress, we two,’ says Natasha, who has since fled to London with the couple’s 12-year-old son. ‘Our marriage, our family was our life. In that moment my world and my belief system disintegrated around me. The fortress crumbled.

‘The last thing he said to me the night he was arrested was, “Don’t worry, I’ll be home tomorrow.” Right to the end he believed innocence could always be proved, but now I understand that nobody is safe. The unimaginable happened to my husband – why couldn’t it also happen to me?’

Traditionally, people are sent to prison because they’ve committed a crime. Sergei, 37, found himself locked away because he uncovered one. He was the auditor who followed an extraordinary paper trail that led from an illegal Interior Ministry raid on the Moscow offices of a London investment company to law enforcers, judiciary, bankers and mobsters.

He was incarcerated for a year without trial and investigated by those with a vested interest in closing down his inquiries. A week before his family were expecting his release he died, officially of heart failure and toxic shock from untreated pancreatitis, but also from brutal beatings. America led world condemnation of the best-documented abuse of human rights to emerge from Russia in the past 25 years. It led to the Magnitsky Act, allowing the US to withhold visas and freeze the financial assets of the Russian officials involved.

Russia retaliated by posthumously prosecuting Sergei for complicity in the tax fraud he revealed. His corpse was found guilty last month and his name has now joined the growing list of other brave citizens, from the late dissident Alexander Litvinenko to the young mothers of the anti-establishment pop group Pussy Riot, who are Russia’s very modern martyrs.

Sergei’s trial began 16 months ago and it was this which forced legal executive Natasha, 41, to flee.
She says: ‘After Sergei’s death I lived almost automatically. I worked and cared for my two sons [now 12 and 21] but the opening of the posthumous case brought a new wave of fear and I stopped being a robot and started thinking of myself and my children.

‘Who knows if we were being watched, followed, or our phone calls listened to .  .  . then I was asked to go for questioning by the same investigator who had led inquiries against Sergei. It was the kind of invitation you couldn’t refuse.

‘Forty-eight hours beforehand I was so terrified I felt like I was losing my mind. I can’t recall what I said or how I felt, it was just a blur. Last September I moved to London and even here I live with the fear.’

Natasha is a dark-haired, petite woman. She speaks in her halting English of ordinary things – her love for Jane Austen and her determination to find a good secondary school for her youngest son.

It’s hard to redraw her as a victim of Russia’s dangerous games of realpolitik but that is what she has become since her husband’s death in 2009. We meet at the London headquarters of Hermitage Capital Management, one of the biggest private equity companies to invest in Russia in the early part of the past decade. Firestone Duncan, the American firm for which Sergei worked, was Hermitage’s legal adviser, and Sergei was the ‘go-to’ man for Hermitage founder Bill Browder, who has since devoted himself to the Magnitsky family’s cause.

Adorning the office walls are numerous international interviews with Browder, who was kicked out of Russia and tried in his absence for the same ‘crime’ as Sergei. The articles speak eloquently of the reach the case has had in Europe and America.

But although her husband’s name has become an ‘issue’ – shorthand for soured diplomacy between Moscow, Washington and London – Natasha knows more than anyone that at its heart is the loss of a man.

She and Sergei were high school sweethearts in the Caucasus city of Nalchik. She joined him in Moscow in 1995 where he was working for accountancy group Ernst & Young before being headhunted by Firestone Duncan. The couple married in 1998.

‘It was a register office formality,’ Natasha recalls. ‘We were already a family. Afterwards Sergei went to the office and I headed home. We had a lovely life, all our years together were good, we were a perfect fit.’ She reflects on the Sergei she knew – the classical music lover with the season ticket to the Moscow Conservatory, the father who built his sons an entire model army and a patriarch who celebrated every new year the same way, by roasting a goose stuffed with apples.

They are the human details hidden behind the international ruckus caused by his killing.

‘Everything was perfect until the moment he was arrested,’ says Natasha. ‘He was a terrible workaholic but he never brought the office home with him. In hindsight I can see he was tense, but he was not a man to share his problems.’

She did not know Sergei was embroiled in what would prove to be the biggest fraud ever perpetrated against the Russian state.

In 2007, Hermitage’s Moscow office had been raided by officers from the Ministry of the Interior and company documents and seals illegally removed. They were used by organised crime gangs to take over three of Hermitage’s Russian companies. The criminal overlords then fraudulently reclaimed and pocketed taxes totalling £150 million previously paid by the company. Sergei was hunting them down on behalf of Hermitage.

His arrest in November 2008 was intended to scare him off.

Natasha says: ‘They came before 11am and searched our house until 10pm that night.

‘They took with them every piece of paper, even pictures our little boy had drawn on scraps.
‘I couldn’t watch him leave because I had to stay with our son, but Sergei shouted he’d be back the next day.’

In fact, Natasha would not speak to him again for a year as he was banned from having visitors and making phone calls.

What he did do was keep a prison diary. It told of sub-zero temperatures, a lack of washing and toilet facilities and appalling overcrowding. In it he admitted what he would not tell Natasha, that his health was in serious decline.

He was crippled by pancreatitis, sometimes unable to move from the embryo position.

Since Butyrka had no hospital wing, his incarceration there was in itself a death sentence. But the prison is also a dumping ground for drug users, Aids victims, and mentally ill and violent inmates.

The transport to and from court and the jail’s cells were so cramped that Sergei sometimes had to stand on one foot. It was no place for a softly spoken accountant.

Someone appeared to want him dead without the bother of putting a bullet through his temple.
It was June 2009 before Natasha was finally able to glimpse her husband again, from a public gallery during a court appearance.

She says: ‘He had a beard, he was thin, but he was smiling and waving from his cage. We could not speak, but at least we could see each other. I felt many things: pity, pain, fear and joy, but above all injustice. That’s still how I feel today.

‘Sergei didn’t know there would be no mechanism for getting him out because he simply wasn’t going to be allowed out. He wrote thousands of legal papers outlining his case and saying his detention was illegal but he was barely permitted to speak in court and when he did his arguments were dismissed.
‘We put all our forces as a family into trying to get him back but we failed.’

In October 2009 she was inexplicably granted a prison visit.

‘It was not what I expected. I thought I would be able to touch my husband but we were in two plastic booths nine feet apart with telephones for talking.

‘I wanted so much just to hold his hand but I couldn’t.

‘He looked tired but I thought he just needed to hang on a few more weeks. We were so full of hope he would be let out on the anniversary of his arrest the following month. He’d had no trial, they had no reason to keep him.’

On November 12 a court hearing should have rubber-stamped his release after a year’s detention. Natasha says: ‘As the minutes passed it became clear the authorities wanted to keep him locked up. I could see Sergei understood that too. After a two-hour hearing the judge prolonged his detention. Sergei looked despairing.’

It was four days later that she and Sergei’s mother took their next food parcel to Butyrka and discovered he had died. They were denied an independent post-mortem examination or even the release of his body from custody before his funeral.

Minutes before Sergei was interred, his mother peeled back the white lace blanket covering him.

His hands were not clasped in prayer, they were balled into fists and there were deep purple bruises still visible beneath the undertakers’ thick make-up.

Whatever horrors had been perpetrated on Sergei at the end, he’d gone down fighting.

He died ultimately because he told a very inconvenient truth: that someone stole £150 million from the Kremlin and the Kremlin did nothing about it. He died because of money and power as surely as if he’d been executed by an oligarch’s henchman in Red Square.

Those who killed him may never face prosecution in their own country but the scrutiny and judgment of the free world will not find in their favour.

Natasha says: ‘I was a teenager when Perestroika came to Russia. It felt new and bright, like we had a democratic future, and my generation held those ideas close.

‘It was not perfect but in my nice, middle-class Moscow life, I trusted that if you were a law-abiding citizen you would not come to harm.

‘Sergei always told me so; he was an honest, scrupulous, fair man who would never touch a client who had broken the law, never mind break it himself. We were both mistaken.

‘My hope is that even if there is no justice in Russia we will find it beyond her borders.
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