A broken spine, signs of electric torture, asphyxiation, knife wounds and rape – these were just a few of the grim and unexpected findings of an official medical report into the death of a Russian inventor in pretrial custody.
Valery Pshenichny, 56, was jailed in January after being accused of embezzling 100m rubles (£1.1m) in a defence contract to develop 3D submarine models. Just three weeks later, his body was found hanging from an improvised lace noose in his St Petersburg prison cell.
Prison authorities initially insisted it was suicide, but friends of the businessman sensed something was up. Perhaps he had been driven to a heart attack, they suggested, and then denied treatment. The “strong” and “clear headed” inventor was not an obvious candidate to take his own life. His wife also wondered how a lace appeared inside the prison from a hoodie she couldn’t remember.
Surprisingly, authorities have agreed foul play was involved, and have signalled a dramatic departure in their investigation by reportedly collecting DNA samples from prison guards.
The apparent brutality of Pshenichny’s case has already brought comparisons with another Russian prison scandal, the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009. The lawyer had called out a massive VAT ruse conducted by tax officials but was instead imprisoned for his troubles. He died in pretrial custody in excruciating pain after being deliberately and repeatedly denied medical treatment.
Magnitsky’s boss, the exiled billionaire Bill Browder, has since accused a number of high ranking officials in the Russian government of being directly responsible for his death.
Like Sergei Magnitsky, Pshenichny’s problems began when he accused another of fraud. In this case, it was a former business partner, Andrei Petrov, who the entrepreneur accused of stealing company money. A criminal case and arrest followed in 2016. But in the course of the ensuing trial, Mr Petrov successfully managed to turn the tables. It was, instead, Valery Pshenichny who was found guilty of fraud and inflating the cost of a defence contract.
Friends have described Pshenichny as a “Russian Elon Musk.” His work in 3D modelling was groundbreaking and had potential application in the remote repair of submarines. The disputed multimillion ruble contract he signed with the ministry of defence to was expected to be followed by contracts in the oil and gas industry. Pshenichny had reportedly even prepared a patent application, but he would die before ever having a chance to submit it.
According to lawyer Larissa Fon-Arev, the entrepreneur was given early hints that he would see out his days in prison. When state investigators arrived at his home on 16 January to conduct a search, they were accompanied by security service agents, she told The Independent.
“They asked him to take a good look at his suits," she said. "He was told he wouldn’t need them anymore, save for his coffin.”
Just before his death, Pshenichny also passed letters to his wife, Natalya, indicating he had been the subject of extortion. The notes urged her “not to pay anything”, Ms Fon-Arev revealed.
Suspicious deaths in custody are not altogether rare in Russia’s corrupted justice system. What is unusual is for official investigations to return with anything other than a whitewash.
“In this case, they seem to have worked without interference from prison officers,” the activist Zoya Svetova told The Independent. “This is generally unheard of, but it might simply mean the officers were in overdrive and had become complacent.”
Ms Fon-Arev said that she hoped the medical report would eventually lead to convictions and justice for Pshenichny’s family.
“This death happened in a closed government institution, with my client defenceless against a state that was supposed to protect him,” she said. “I can’t let myself think there won’t be a proper investigation and trial.”