What Magnitsky Means to Me
Not even a clean doctor is safe from Russia's dirty war.
This week, Congress voted to roll back a host of Cold War-era trade restrictions, granting Russia permanent, normal trade relations with the United States. Integral to that legislative package — which still has to be signed into law by President Obama — is the Magnitsky Act, a bill that would impose sanctions on a list of Russian officials who stand accused of human rights abuses.
The bill is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian auditor who in 2008 exposed the massive defrauding of a British investment fund by officials in the Russian Interior Ministry, but was later arrested and tortured to death by the same officers that he had testified against. On Capitol Hill, Magnitsky’s death has become a cause célèbre, and the new legislation the bitter pill Moscow must swallow in exchange for the normalization of trade relations.
But for one family — my family — its passage comes just a moment too late.
On Nov. 28, Russian news outlets reported that police in Makhachkala, the capital of the restive northern region of Dagestan, attempted to arrest a man named Shamil Gasanov at his home. They allegedly sought Gasanov on suspicion of involvement in the 2010 murder of Makhachkala police chief Akhmed Magomedov — a crime that was reportedly carried out by Islamists — though the real reason for his arrest remains very much a mystery. According to the initial press accounts, Gasanov, who is by all accounts secular, resisted arrest and fired a gun at the officers, who returned fire, killing him.
It would have been an unremarkable occurrence in this dangerous corner of the Russian Federation, but for one consideration: the utter implausibility that Shamil Gasanov, an accomplished and well- respected surgeon, was a militant thug. And soon the facts began to unravel.
Two days later, witnesses came forward and told a very different story to RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency. Gasanov’s colleagues at Makhachkala Hospital No. 2 said they were stunned when heavily armed men burst into the surgical wing and arrested the 39-year-old surgeon in his scrubs and slippers — not at his home, as earlier reports had indicated.
The men also entered an operating room where, with a patient under anesthesia, Gasanov’s brother-in-law, anesthesiologist Marat Gunashev, was taken into custody. They then whisked the two prisoners away, having refused to identify themselves to the distraught hospital staff or supply a reason for the doctors’ arrests.
Independent Russian news agency PublicPost reported that later on the evening of Nov. 28, Gasanov’s neighbors saw armed officers arrive at Gasanov’s home with a blindfolded prisoner, and proceed to search the premises. Soon after, gunshots were heard.
The Russian news outlets that had reported the earlier version of the story — that Gasanov had been killed after firing on officers who were entering his home — updated their stories to reflect a new version of events: while a squad of heavily-armed, combat-trained men ransacked his house, they reported, the surgeon, who was bound and blindfolded, had somehow retrieved a pistol from a "secret hiding place" and attempted to shoot his way to freedom.
The following day, according to the RIA Novosti account, officials searched Gunashev’s home. The anesthesiologist’s attorney was not permitted to speak to his client or be present while the search was carried out. Later, he was informed that "substances which look like drugs" had been found in Gunashev’s eight-year-old daughter’s drawer, along with school books.
Gunashev has remained in custody since he was arrested almost two weeks ago. But the question of who is holding him is as convoluted as the facts surrounding his brother-in-law’s death.
According to RIA Novosti, the Dagestani police have no record of Gasanov or Gunashev’s arrest. Nor was either man on a previously-reported list of suspects for the 2010 murder of the police chief.
An unnamed source within the police told RIA Novosti that the operation has been planned and carried out entirely by the special security forces of the regional Investigative Committee for the North Caucasian Federal District, which is the nation’s major investigative agency, headed by president Vladimir Putin’s old-time ally Alexander Bastrykin. Officials at the Investigative Committee refused to comment on the matter to RIA Novosti.
While we may never know whether a successful surgeon made the remarkable decision to take on an entire squad of special security forces with a hidden pistol his family says he never had, one thing has become gruesomely clear: Gasanov’s body was eventually returned without its head. His corpse also showed signs of torture, with bruises on his torso and both of his knees destroyed by direct gunshots.
These revelations lend credence to an even more unnerving possibility suggested by Gunashev’s lawyer: that Gasanov was dead before his body was brought to his home for a staged search, and there decapitated by a close-range gunshot to create a plausible cover for his death by torture.
As for Gunashev — should he or his case ever reach trial — it is doubtful that a court will seriously consider the testimony of his eight-year-old daughter, who maintains that she saw an officer place a small package into her drawer during the search of their home.
I have never met Marat Gunashev and will now never meet Shamil Gasanov, but both are relatives of mine through marriage. In the extended family tradition of the Caucasus, they might be might be considered my brothers-in-law once- and twice-removed, though I know very little about them other, save for the pride our relatives had for their medical gifts.
To Russia watchers, the story of Gunashev and Gasanov is disturbing, but also familiar. To my family, it has made plain the terrible reality of Russia’s broadening state culture of abuse, corruption, and repression. It is a story that U.S. officials should bear in mind as they normalize trade relations with Russia. As with any deal, the final analysis must rest on whether the benefits come at too high a price.
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