WASHINGTON (AP) — A controversial documentary that claims that a Russian whistleblower whose death in prison had inspired a major U.S. human rights law was responsible for the very fraud he had accused Russian officials of perpetrating was shown in Washington on Monday, drawing harsh criticism from his supporters.
The screening at Newseum ended with the shouts “Shame” and “Lies” from the audience and a planned question-and-answer session turned into a heated exchange between supporters of the late whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky and the movie director, Andrei Nekrasov.
Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison in 2009 at the age of 37 after accusing Russian officials of stealing $230 million from the government in tax rebates using the companies that he represented. The Russian presidential council on human rights said he was beaten and denied medical treatment in jail. Magnitsky was a lawyer for William Browder, a British-American investor who made millions in Russia after the Soviet collapse, but then was expelled from the country in 2005.
Magnitsky’s case has become a symbol of human rights abuses and corruption in Russia. In 2012 Congress passed a law in his honor that imposed sanctions on nearly 40 Russian officials deemed implicated in the case and in other rights violations. The sanctions, which Browder actively lobbied for, involve travel bans and asset freezes in U.S. jurisdictions. Russia reacted by banning American families from adopting Russian orphans, citing safety concerns.
Browder has denounced the movie as a smear campaign and has succeeded in blocking its screening in Europe. But the Newseum, a museum dedicated to media freedom, stood by its decision to rent its theater for the screening, saying it is a matter of free speech.
In the film, which blends elements of a documentary and actors re-enacting Magnitsky’s time in jail and other scenes, Nekrasov disputes the widely accepted narrative that Magnitsky was arrested and abused in jail because he had uncovered a massive tax fraud scheme perpetrated by Russian officials. Nekrasov, who has made movies critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, claims that Magnitsky never actually accused two police officers at the center of the case and contends that it was in fact Magnitsky himself who perpetrated the tax fraud. But a transcript of Magnitsky’s testimony to Russian investigators, which Nekrasov references in the movie, shows him naming the two police officials before his arrest many times.
Nekrasov also alleges that Magnitsky was not tortured in jail, even though there are photos showing multiple bruises on Magnitsky’s body and a prison report saying that a rubber baton was used against him.
Nekrasov claimed that Browder, who has been convicted of tax evasion in Russia and sentenced to prison in absentia, invented the Magnitsky story as a public relations stunt.
“He made up the Magnitsky story so that the accusations of the Russian government against him would be regarded as politically motivated,” Nekrasov told The Associated Press ahead of the screening. Nekrasov said he initially set out to document Browder’s version on the events in his film, but then discovered evidence that changed his mind.
Browder vehemently denied Nekrasov’s allegations and said the film is an attempt by the Russian government to get the Magnitsky Act repealed. Browder’s campaign has led several countries, including the United States and Switzerland, to open money laundering investigations and freeze assets in connection with the fraud.
“It’s part of a Kremlin-sponsored smear campaign to try discredit the Magnitsky Act and to ultimately repeal the Magnitsky sanctions,” Browder told the AP. “This movie is spitting on the grave of a Russian hero who stood up against Russian corruption and gave his life for his principles, and it’s a terrible insult to his family who are still deeply traumatized and destroyed by what the Russian government did to their husband and their son.”
Russian Embassy spokesman Yuri Melnik said that statements that the Russian government was trying to influence U.S. legislation were “completely groundless.”