Magnitsky died in a Russian prison in 2009 at age 37 after what even Moscow’s human rights commission said was brutal treatment by Russian authorities, including beatings with rubber batons and denial of medical treatment for pancreatitis. The current mini-Cold War between Washington and the Kremlin—which Snowden exploited when he flew to Moscow to escape U.S. justice—was largely set off by the 2012 Magnitsky Act, a law inspired by Magnitsky’s brave stand against corruption. The act, which bars Russian officials suspected of human-rights abuse from entering the U.S. and freezes their American bank accounts, has been denounced by Putin as an unjustified interference in his nation’s internal affairs. The conviction of the deceased Magnitsky on tax-evasion charges this week was his government’s way of saying “screw you” to Washington and anyone else who tells him how to run Russia. During his 13 years in power, Putin has also coldly presided over the detention of others who have questioned his practices or threatened his hold on power, including the imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Suddenly the Snowden story has eclipsed all that. It’s a reverse eclipse, actually, since it has turned the darkness surrounding Putin’s practices into light, thanks to Snowden’s bestowal of grace. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the still-unresolved question of whether Snowden is more of a legitimate whistleblower or a traitor thanks to his revelations about NSA surveillance programs. It is really fair to cast Putin’s government—or Venezuela’s for that matter, since current President Nicolas Maduro is really just the late autocrat Hugo Chavez’s mini-me—as the upholders of freedom?