Imagine witnessing something horrifying: a beating, a kidnapping, large-scale theft or even a murder. Not only did you witness this, but the perpetrator left behind irrefutable evidence. Now imagine the perpetrator is a policeman and you are in Russia, and this nightmare just became reality.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has made amazing strides to overcome its murky past. Emerging from a history of purges, famine, and persecution, the nation is still struggling to find a solid grasp on how to balance power with civil rights. Unfortunately this struggle is being waged within Russia’s police and security forces in the form of widespread corruption. So what is Russia to do when those who are meant to protect are the same ones guilty of the crimes? More importantly, what does it say about a society when those in a position of power are so willing to openly break the law?
The police corruption facing Russia today is not simply a bribe here and there, but rather large scale theft, involving million of dollars and multiple levels of the government. Yet, where Russian society is paying the most is not in terms of money but in terms of basic rights. Russian officials have been able to maintain their culture of corruption by committing crimes then finding a scapegoat. Through phony charges and manipulation of actual laws, whistleblowers and even someone in the wrong place at the wrong time will take the blame, rather than those who are actually guilty.
One of the most widely criticized examples of this system occurred in 2009, when a courageous Russian attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, took on police corruption and paid with his life. Magnitsky worked as a lawyer representing an American investment advisory company, Hermitage Capital Management, based in Moscow. In 2008, Magnitsky uncovered a $230 million dollar tax-fraud scheme led by officers in the Russian Ministry of Interior. When Magnitsky testified against the officers, they were able to have him arrested on false charges and held for nearly a year. In an attempt to assure they would not be found guilty, the corrupt officers Magnitsky had uncovered made certain he was tortured and deprived of the most basic needs. On November 16th, 2009, Magnitsky died in prison due to the unthinkable conditions he was placed in.
Magnistky’s former employer, an American lawyer named Jamison Firestone, has been fighting to make sure Magnistky’s death, the officers responsible, and the corruption scheme itself do not get swept under the rug by the Russian government. “There is no accountability for officials and no real government support for whistleblowers,” Firestone says. “In fact, the vast majority of people who attack real government corruption will find the police opening criminal cases against them for reporting the crime and the government will do nothing to support the whistleblowers.”
For a year there was no such accountability or support for Magnitsky, and an innocent man who refused to allow another crooked cop to make money off of their position paid so dearly for so long. Firestone described the heart and dedication Magnitsky gave to the case even while being tortured.
The man was put into impossible conditions and told that he would be released if he withdrew his testimony against the corrupt officers and incriminated other innocent people. For one year while the police tortured him, he maintained his dignity and humanity. He calmly sent hundreds of letters and complaints to the proper authorities, never losing his belief in the system. They denied him hygiene, they denied him comfort, they denied him his family, they caused him excruciating physical and psychological pain, and through it all he never compromised his dignity. He never lost his humanity. He never gave into evil. Sergei did something that everyone recognizes as right but that most of us are unsure we would be able to do ourselves. This unwavering dignity and morality under impossible conditions and its complete contrast with the character of his captors is why Sergei’s murder has touched and enraged the world.
Sadly for the citizens of Russia, cases such as Magnitsky’s are far too common place, which is evident by the number of reports on instances of beatings, unwarranted arrests, and even claims of extrajudicial executions taking place across the country. Despite this human rights groups, independent media and citizens are refusing to ignore this abuse of power and disregard for rule of law by those in power. Groups such as Strategy 31, hold rallies in support of Russian Constitution Article 31, which guarantees the right to peacefully assemble. On each month consisting of 31 days, the civil rights group peacefully rallies, knowing that members will be arrested and harshly treated. Yet this is not stopping them or the many others who refuse to see their nation continue to foster its culture of corruption.
Russia is at a pivotal point in its battle against corrupt officials and abuse of rights, and it will not be surprising to see justice come out on the winning side. Perhaps Firestone summed it up best by saying, “The more people who reject apathy, the better. One never knows which act of resistance will be the one that turns the tide.” Whether that act will be an illegal arrest or a lawyer’s appeal, eventually the people of Russia will have had enough, and the culture of corruption will have met its end.