Investor Bill Browder has long framed himself as Vladimir Putin’s top enemy. “He has hunted me down through Interpol, made numerous requests of the British government to extradite me,” said Browder, who was briefly detained in Spain two months ago. “Putin made it clear I was his No. 1 foe in Helsinki a week ago, and it’s been the case since 2012.”
Last month, the Russian president used a joint appearance with President Donald Trump to accuse Browder’s business associates of tax evasion. The next day Browder was named alongside 10 former U.S. diplomats, intelligence officials and others who Moscow wanted to interrogate.
But the U.S.-born businessman, whose company made billions in Russia until he was barred from the country for unexplained reasons in 2005, said the real grounds for the opprobrium is his decadelong lobbying for the 2012 U.S. Magnitsky Act. It levies sanctions on Russian officials for corruption and human rights abuses, banning those named from visiting the U.S. or doing business with Americans. Since it was passed, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on 49 people in six separate rounds.
Moscow has often sought to play down the impact of sanctions, but this latest episode underlines the Kremlin’s preoccupation with the Magnitsky curbs and the significance of the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting, a focus of Robert Mueller’s investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
There’s been an organized influence effort by the Russian state on the Magnitsky Act for years.
Jamie Fly, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund
“Russian elites bristle at the Magnitsky Act,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of Eurasia Group. “It’s a sanction that names and shames elites for repressive acts. The Kremlin objects to U.S. sanctions generally, but this measure — viewed as moral preaching — really elicits anger.”
The act was named after Sergei Magnitsky, Browder’s auditor who he said exposed a $ 230 million tax fraud by Russian officials and a criminal gang against the Russian state. Russian authorities arrested Magnitsky over a tax case against Browder’s firm, however, and he died a year later in 2009 in a Russian jail after being beaten.
In 2016, the U.S. enacted a broader law that targets similar crimes in countries outside Russia — the Global Magnitsky Act. That has so far penalized 76 individuals and entities. The Department of Justice also brought a 2013 lawsuit against a Russian company, Prevezon Holdings, which it accused of laundering money into New York real estate from the fraud that Magnitsky uncovered.
Prevezon settled the case last year, agreeing to pay $ 5.9 million without admitting guilt, although missed a repayment deadline. “There was not a single person on that list [released by Moscow last week] who wasn’t connected to Magnitsky or Prevezon,” Browder told the Financial Times.
Former congressional aide Kyle Parker, another of those named who said he believed he was on the list because he drafted the Magnitsky Act, said it infuriated Moscow because it was the first time the U.S. deployed sanctions of a sort previously reserved for the likes of Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Libya.
“At the time, Russia had just acceded to the WTO, was a member of the G-8 and was seeking OECD membership, and so in many senses was nearly totally integrated [into the West], and so Magnitsky was the beginning of U.S. willingness to escalate, cross the Rubicon and wield these tools against the Kremlin,” he said. “It laid the groundwork for our wider sanctions response in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Browder said this month’s summit essentially repeated the aims of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting. “It was the same meeting, the same talking points,” he said.
In June 2016, members of the Trump campaign team including Trump’s son Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner met several Russians offering to dish the dirt on the Clinton campaign. Some of the Russians at that Trump Tower meeting — including Moscow-based lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and former Soviet army officer Rinat Akhmetshin, now a Washington lobbyist — worked on the Prevezon defense.
During the meeting, the pair, who met through their work on the Magnitsky case, lobbied Team Trump against the Magnitsky Act. Jamie Fly, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said the Trump Tower meeting and Putin’s public attack were best seen as part of a broader effort by Moscow to dislodge the Magnitsky law and discredit Browder.
“There’s been an organized influence effort by the Russian state on the Magnitsky Act for years,” he said. “It is striking that Mr. Putin felt so emboldened to raise Browder personally with Mr. Trump.”
Moscow disputes Browder’s account of both his business record and Magnitsky’s death and has sentenced him in absentia to nine years in jail for charges including tax evasion.
Akhmetshin this month brought a defamation claim against Browder in a district court in Washington, arguing the latter falsely alleged he was a foreign spy after Akhmetshin found inconsistencies in Browder’s story. His complaint says Browder was “a driving force” behind the Prevezon case. Browder said he was yet to see the claim.
Trump has not publicly opined on Magnitsky, though the U.S. State Department appears undeterred. A U.S. State Department official said “an important goal” of its Magnitsky program was to build an international group of partners to take further action. “We intend to closely follow the reactions of other governments,” said the official.
If Browder has his way, eight more countries will soon adopt their own versions of the U.S. legislation. The U.K., Canada, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have already adopted their own models, and Browder is now pushing France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Ukraine, Australia and South Africa to do the same.
By Katrina Manson
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