Since Sergei Magnitsky was killed in a Russian jail in 2009, financier Bill Browder has campaigned vociferously to bring those responsible for his former lawyer’s death to justice. This high-profile activity has set him on a collision course with the Russian authorities and specifically Vladimir Putin.
In apparent retaliation against his justice campaign, the Russian authorities have put Browder on trial in absentia in Russia and convicted him of charges which he calls “trumped up”. They have tried multiple times to get Interpol to arrest him and made repeated attempts to seize his assets. He has even had death threats. Eight years on from Magnitsky’s death, there is no let up in sight.
“Putin has hardened his stance against me,” Browder told City A.M. “My campaign has shone a very bright light on how much Putin personally steals from his people and that infuriates him.”
However, the ceaseless campaigning has started to pay off. Legislation designed to freeze the assets of those who torture and violate human rights is about to pass into UK law. Brainchild of Browder and MP Dominic Raab, the Magnitsky law follows on from similar legislation in the US.
What’s more, a large chunk of the assets which were stolen by Russian officials, setting off a chain of events that ultimately led to Magnitsky’s untimely death, have been frozen around the world.
Browder’s journey started in the spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship. With famous Lebanese banker Edmond Safra, he founded Hermitage Capital Management in 1996 for the purpose of investing in Russia. The business was very successful, profiting from the wave of privatisations in Russia at that time. In 2005, after Browder became vocal about corporate corruption in Russia, he was blacklisted by the Russian government as a “threat to national security” and denied entry to the country.
Eighteen months later, dozens of police officers swooped on the Moscow offices of Hermitage and its law firm, confiscating documents and computers. The raids in June 2007 enabled corrupt law enforcement officers to steal the corporate registration documents of three Hermitage holding companies, enabling them to defraud the company out of $230m (£186m).
In November 2008, after testifying against the officials involved, Sergei Magnitsky, one of Hermitage’s lawyers, was arrested by the very same officers he had testified against.
Browder says that Magnitsky was tortured for 358 days as his jailers tried to get him to withdraw his testimony and sign a false confession that he was the one responsible for the tax fraud. He refused. On 16 November 2009 he died after allegedly being beaten by prison guards.
Browder’s metamorphosis from financier into full-time campaigner started at that point.
He explains: “Sergei Magnitsky died because he was my lawyer and I made a vow to his memory to get justice. Unfortunately, Russia circled the wagons and exonerated all the officials involved. They even gave some of the most complicit state honours. It was obvious we had to seek justice outside Russia.”
An early success was the US Magnitsky law which imposed visa sanctions and asset freezes against the corrupt Russian officials who had killed Magnitsky. US-born Browder, who is now a British citizen, has fought hard for an equivalent Magnitsky law in the UK because “nearly every tin-pot dictator who tortures and kills in their own country has an expensive home in London”. Up until now, he believes people have largely been turning a blind eye to their presence.
The new legislation, an amendment to the criminal finances bill, will apply to individuals who financially profited from or assisted the human rights violations. It lays the groundwork for civil recovery proceedings to be brought with regard to property belonging to human rights violators.
The proposed law, set for its final “line-by-line” reading in the House of Lords at the end of this month, applies to torture whether it occurred before or after the law is enacted.
After the second reading, Lord Rooker said: “I salute Mr Browder for his dedication and perseverance in trying to bring those guilty of the murder of his lawyer to justice. Chasing them legally around the world, and now in this Bill, is a must.”
Browder credits the “political genius” of Raab for getting the legislation to this point after five years. “[Prime Minister Theresa] May has authorised the act. It is a huge blow to the human rights violators. The intention is to make life uncomfortable for them. We have many corrupt Russian officials in mind. We hope it creates panic and fear in the perpetrators of this crime and others like it.”
Browder, whose dramatic life story is being turned into a film, vows to carry on until the criminals are brought to justice in Russia. He acknowledges this will not happen while Putin is in power and cautions others against doing business in Russia. “You are risking your money and risking your life,” he says.
President Trump’s stance on Putin must be galling for him. Browder pulls no punches in his response: “He is making a serious error in judgement if he thinks he can appease Putin. Putin just views appeasement as weakness, which emboldens him to do even more terrible things.”
What does he think about foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s upcoming visit to Moscow? “As long as he’s going to show the UK’s tough position on Ukraine, sanctions and geopolitical meddling, and not to appease Putin, then I’m fine.”