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A Who's Who of Russian Dissidents Gathered in London to Protest Against Putin

VICE News was at a secret awards ceremony in London, as Russian dissidents gathered together to honor Sergei Magnitsky who was beaten to death in a Russian prison six years ago.

by Sally Hayden
Nov 17 2015, 7:30pm

Opposition activists release black balloons in Moscow to mark the sixth anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky. Photo by Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

It's now been six years since lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in a Russian prison. On Monday night, his friends, fellow anti-corruption activists, and prominent Russian dissidents came together to honor his memory at an event in central London named the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards.

Guests were warned in advance to keep the location a secret for "security reasons." Tickets were non-transferable, there were no "plus-ones," and bags were searched on arrival. VICE News obtained an invite, but my backpack wasn't allowed into the dining room of Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, close to London's Parliament Square.

"There are at least six people here that Russia wants to kill," one journalist commented wryly at the pre-dinner drinks reception. "Watch out for polonium in your coffee — not that you can see or smell it."

Related: 'Russia Is Not the Same as Putin': Marina Litvinenko, Widow of Murdered Ex-KGB Agent, Speaks to VICE News

The man behind the lavish event was Bill Browder — vocal Vladimir Putin critic, millionaire co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management, and Magnitsky's former colleague. "I made a vow that I would get justice for Sergei no matter how long it took," he said from the stage on Monday night.

Magnitsky was killed in 2009 after previously revealing an alleged $230 million tax fraud. Browder's campaigning over the past six years has resulted in the US Magnitsky law, which bans a blacklist of Russian citizens accused of human rights violations from entering the US. He continues to call for similar laws to be implemented across the world.

Magnitsky's wife, mother, and children were present at the event in London. Alexander Litvinenko's son Anatoly was also there, as were representatives from Human Rights Watch and Transparency International — which supported the award for investigative journalism.

This year has been a difficult one for some of last night's attendees. It saw the British-led inquiry into the death of Litvinenko, the former KGB agent who met a long and painful end in London in 2006 after unknowingly drinking radioactive polonium, and the inquest into the death of Russian businessman Alexander Perepilichny, who collapsed in 2012 while running near his home in Surrey, in England's southeast. 

Related: The Assassination of Boris Nemtsov: Putin's Biggest Critic

A plant expert later claimed to have discovered a chemical in Perepilichny's stomach from the highly toxic Gelsemium plant — which only grows in remote areas of China. Browder told VICE News in May that Perepilichny was the fifth person linked to the Magnitsky case who had died in mysterious circumstances.

These UK-based events were all dwarfed by the shooting of Russian leader Boris Nemtsov in February this year. The co-chair of the Republican Party of Russia-People's Freedom Party was assassinated on a bridge in central Moscow, just blocks away from the Kremlin.

Nemtsov was mentioned by many of Monday night's speakers, who also spoke about the importance of collaboration and the need to implement Magnitsky Acts in other countries. 

Zhanna Nemtsova, Nemtsov's 31-year-old daughter, collected his award for him in the "campaigning for democracy" category. After the ceremony, she told VICE News: "I'm really impressed by what Bill Browder has done. For six years he was really stubborn and he continues with his job and I think what he's doing is very important for protecting human rights. I think that he's doing a good job in defending human rights in Russia, and as one of the speakers mentioned it's important to fight for the rights, otherwise this is a theoretical abstraction."

Nemtsova continued "I don't think that what separates us is the border, you can go to Russia and there is freedom of movement. I think that what separates Russian people is their understanding of patriotism and the majority of Russians understand patriotism as granting full support for Putin and his policies, and I think that it is different. My perception of patriotism, and I know many, many people who share the same ideas as that, is that patriotism is fighting for a free, democratic and liberal Russia."

Nemtsova said that while she could return to Russia, "I don't want to go right now."

Instead, she told VICE News she's established a Boris Nemtsov Foundation from Germany and would like to establish a Boris Nemtsov prize for bravery in fighting for democratic values in Russia once a year.

Also in the audience was Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition ally and friend of Nemtsov, who was admitted to hospital in May after allegedly being poisoned. Speakers said he had fought for his life before eventually recovering.

Related: Putin Accused of Ordering Former Russian Secret Agent to be Poisoned in London

Former Prime Minister of Russia and current Putin critic Mikhail Kasyanov presented an award, as did Mikhail Khodorkovsky — a Russian exile who was reportedly the wealthiest man in Russia just over a decade ago before being accused of fraud and imprisoned.

Anti-corruption campaigner Roman Borisovich also attended. He was recently involved in the Channel 4 documentary From Russia With Cash, which attempted to highlight how easy it was for Russian buyers to launder money through the London property market.

Further from the stage were a table of attendees from Azerbaijani independent news outlet Meydan TV, including prominent dissident Emin Milli.

The sixteen winners were a mix of activists, politicians, journalists, and lawyers, and winners included US Congressman Jim McGovern, the Oslo Free­dom Forum, British journalist James O'Brien, former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which received the award for investigative journalism. All awards were linked to campaigning or reporting around the Magnitsky case.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd