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updated: 9/6/2011 8:08 AM

Russia vows 'red hot iron' for police guilty of lawyer death

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Bloomberg News

Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev promised to burn "with red hot iron" any police officers who gained illicit wealth and were involved in the prosecution of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

"If something is proven beyond doubt, I will burn them with red hot iron myself," Nurgaliev said in an interview Sept. 3 in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. At the moment, "we can't charge them with anything."

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Russia is undertaking the biggest overhaul of the police since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 as President Dmitry Medvedev seeks to stamp out corruption and improve his country's investment climate. Prosecutors opened an investigation of two prison officials, including a doctor, over Magnitsky's death in July, two months after Medvedev said all guilty parties in the lawyer's "tragic" passing should be punished.

William Browder, the founder of London-based Hermitage, once Russia's biggest portfolio investor, accuses the Russian authorities of a whitewash over Magnitsky's death and says the officers involved amassed millions of dollars from the tax fraud. Some of those officers were reappointed in the new-look police after passing the necessary recertification.

Ministry Signal

"The Interior Ministry officers seem to be getting the signal from Nurgaliyev that they won't be punished in Russia for torturing Sergei Magnitsky to death," Browder said by e-mail, referring to Nurgaliyev's assertion that the authorities found insufficient evidence to charge anyone.

Magnitsky, who was 37 when he died of heart failure in 2009, said he was abused and denied medical care while in custody to force him to drop allegations of a $230 million tax fraud by Interior Ministry officials. He spent almost a year in pre-trial detention.

"The failure to provide Magnitsky with adequate medical treatment was a direct cause of his death," the Investigative Committee said in July on its website, citing the results of a medical probe.

The Russian president's rights council in response urged the prosecution of officials responsible for the death of Magnitsky. The council concluded in a report issued July 6 that the lawyer was probably beaten to death.

'Fraudsters'

While the Interior Ministry selected the "best of the best" for re-appointment during its purge of the police force, it may take years to eliminate corruption, Nurgaliyev said.

"If you only knew what we started from," he said. "Many officers were racketeering. For example, I come to you and you have a police order to provide documentation. I tell you to give me 50 percent and I'll sort it out. Many fraudsters created such a scheme. It's disgusting."

Many senior officers were dismissed for wrongfully declaring their incomes, Nurgaliyev said.

"Some officers in the south registered businesses to spouses and then fictitiously divorced them," he said.

Since March 1, 143 senior officers have been fired, according to comments by Sergei Naryshkin, head of the presidential administration, posted on the Kremlin website July 29.

The changes at the police are superficial, Natalia Taubina, director of the Public Verdict Foundation, said yesterday in a telephone interview.

"We see very little decrease in number of people who had been tortured or beaten up," she said.

Russians paid at least 164 billion rubles ($5.6 billion) in bribes last year to buy off teachers, traffic policemen and others in "everyday" situations, almost double the level in 2001, the Economy Ministry said June 14.

Russia is the world's most corrupt major economy, according to Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index issued in October, sliding to 154th among 178 countries, alongside Tajikistan and Kenya.

The police overhaul also envisages a reduction in staff numbers by about 20 percent, equivalent to more than 200,000 officers. Under the changes, police officers will receive larger salaries to deter bribe-taking.

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