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Russia drops charges in lawyer's prison death

MOSCOW — Russia's top investigative body said Monday it has dropped charges against a doctor suspected of negligence in the case of a prominent lawyer who reported official corruption in Russia, then died in custody while suffering from untreated pancreatitis.

The lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, had accused Interior Ministry officials of using false tax documents to steal $230 million from the state. He was imprisoned for tax evasion in 2008 and died in custody in November 2009.

A private investigation concluded Magnitsky was severely beaten and denied medical treatment in prison, and it accused the government of failing to prosecute those responsible.

Magnitsky worked for Hermitage Capital, an investment fund owned and run by U.S.-born William Browder, who has since been barred from Russia as a security risk.

On Monday, Russia's Investigative Committee dropped the negligence charge against Dr. Larisa Litvinova, citing a two-year statute of limitations in such probes.

Hermitage Capital sharply criticized the decision, calling it "the latest example of the reluctance within the Russian government to hold anyone accountable" for Magnitsky's death.

"In dropping charges against Ms. Litvinova, the Russian investigators have refused to acknowledge that Sergei Magnitsky had been tortured in custody, a crime that has a 10-year statute of limitations," the investment fund said in a statement.

The lawyer's death was seen as a litmus case for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's pledge to cement rule of law in Russia. Investors working in Russia have said Magnitsky's death and allegations of torture highlight corruption and the arbitrary nature of Russia's justice system.

Shortly after Magnitsky's death, Medvedev pledged to personally oversee the investigation which has been on for more than two years and is due to be wrapped up later this month.

But the Investigative Committee said Monday it has closed the investigation of Litvinova, the chief physician at the Butyrskaya prison where Magnitsky died, because of the statue of limitations. She was charged with negligence that led to Magnitsky's death, while the prison's deputy chief, Dmitry Kratov, was charged with negligence. The charge was not dropped against Kratov on Monday.

Magnitsky's family and colleagues have accused authorities of delaying the probe and charging only perpetrators, rather than those who might have ordered the lawyer's persecution.

In an apparent response to these claims, the Investigative Committee said Monday that the probe has taken so long because of lengthy medical procedures and the fact that Litvinova and Kratov were both hospitalized for two months last year for unexplained reasons.

The statue of limitations for the charge that Litvinova faced was shortened by Medvedev's amendments to the Criminal Code aimed at reducing the number of crimes that entail criminal liability. Medvedev proposed these amendments in response to criticism of the treatment of jailed businessmen, which was largely inspired by Magnitsky's case.

Investigators have recently re-opened a tax evasion probe against Magnitsky, even though he is dead, saying that it would give his relatives a chance to clear his name. But his family has objected to that, saying it never requested such an opportunity.