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Magnitsky Awards 2023: Honouring the Bravery of the Imprisoned Champions of Democracy

This blog was authored by Jonas Helyar, Director of Advocacy at Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign.

On the 16th November 2023, alongside my colleagues at the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign, I had the privilege of helping to organise the 9th iteration of the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards. These awards are hosted every year by Bill Browder, to commemorate the work of brave human rights activists, journalists and politicians from around the world.

The Magnitsky Awards were started in 2015 to commemorate Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was murdered by the Putin regime in 2009 for exposing a massive $230 million tax rebate fraud implicating members of the Russian government. The officials that he accused swiftly had him arrested and imprisoned. During his time in prison, he was systematically tortured with the intention of forcing him to withdraw his accusations but he never did. As a result of his refusal to back down, on the 16th November 2009, he was beaten to death by Russian prison guards. He was 37 years old.

Bill Browder took it as his personal mission to hold those responsible for his murder to account. Through this mission, he spearheaded a campaign to get governments around the world to adopt Magnitsky Laws – legislation that freezes the assets and bans the visas of human rights abusers and corrupt officials.

Bill created the awards to honour Sergei’s legacy. Every year, the awards bring politicians, journalists, human rights activists together from all over the world for an evening remembering Sergei’s bravery by awarding brave people from all over the world amazing work in the fields of human rights.

In the past winners have included individuals such as Alexei Navalny, Jamal Khashoggi, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Two previous Magnitsky Award winners, Maria Resa and Dmitri Muratov, both went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

This year, there was a strong focus on state hostage taking with awardees including inspirational figures such as Evgenia Kara-Murza who won the Courage Under Fire Award in recognition for her fight to free her husband from prison in Russia; and Jimmy Lai, who was awarded the Outstanding Journalist Award, in commemoration of his brave fight standing up to the Chinese Communist Party.

Both Vladimir and Jimmy’s cases exemplify what the Magnitsky Awards are all about. Both are imprisoned for standing up for democracy, and freedom of speech. Vladimir for example, was arrested in April 2022, following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, for speaking out against the war and in retaliation for helping Bill to get the Magnitsky Act passed. Jimmy Lai on the other hand, was arrested in Hong Kong for his refusal to stop printing Hong Kong’s flagship pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily.

In perhaps one of the most touching moments of the evening, which personified exactly what the awards are all about, Sebastian Lai (Jimmy Lai’s son), accepted the award on Jimmy’s behalf. He stated “a son spends his whole life, trying to understand his father. Mine gave up everything in defence of an ideal.” It is that bravery to stand up to despots around the world, wherever we find them that the Magnitsky Awards draws attention to.

Jimmy Lai, and Vladimir Kara-Murza are both languishing in prison for standing up for peace and freedom. I am incredibly proud of the fact that I was able to play a part in commending them for their bravery by drawing attention to their struggle with the Magnitsky Awards.

However, for me, what the evening exemplified more than anything else – is the continuing failure of the British Government to act on behalf of its citizens that are imprisoned abroad. It is imperative that the Government act now to save the lives of both Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Jimmy Lai. Their bravery should not be ignored, it should be celebrated and protected at all costs.

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