If Bill Browder isn’t Russian President Vladimir Putin’s archenemy, he’s darned close.
The U.S.-born Browder is the successful financier-turned-activist who’s largely responsible for getting the Magnitsky Act passed here and in four other countries so far. Named for a Moscow lawyer who died under suspicious circumstances after exposing high level instances of tax fraud and graft there, it imposes sanctions on certain Russians deemed responsible for Magnitsky’s death and other human rights violations.
Many of those on the growing sanctions list are close to Putin, who’s bent on amending or outright repealing the law that freezes their assets and bans them from traveling here.
“Putin’s absolutely apoplectic about it,” said Browder, 53, who’ll be at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta on Dec. 5 for a talk and book signing. “He rightly believes that should it get passed and implemented in as many countries as possible, then his vast fortune will be subject to freezing and seizure around the world.”
Indeed, the Magnitsky Act is thought to have been the subject of a secretive meeting between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr. and others in June 2016. Long before that, though, Browder had felt the sting of Russia’s displeasure over the cause he first took up some eight years ago: He’s been convicted in absentia and sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia for the financial crimes he actually helped uncover.
Most recently, in October, the London resident’s U.S. visa was revoked (and then restored) when Moscow put his name on Interpol’s watch list of criminal fugitives.
But as evidenced by the upcoming Carter Library event, Browder’s not going away quietly. In fact, he makes clear, he’s not going away at all.
“I’m going there to tell the story that Putin is a major source of evil and he needs to be contained, not appeased,” Browder said in a phone interview from London. “What you can learn from my story is how Russia should be dealt with.”
At the heart of that story, which Browder detailed in his 2015 book, “Red Notice,” is Sergei Magnitsky. That name is one many Americans likely only became aware of last summer in connection with the previously undisclosed meeting held at Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Donald Trump Jr., along with several other Trump presidential campaign team members, attended the meeting with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. The president’s son had reportedly been promised “damaging information” on the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, but he later said that Veselnitskaya “began discussing the adoption of Russian children and mentioned the Magnitsky Act.”
Browder knows all about Veselnitskaya, who denies working for the Russian government even as she’s lobbied hard to overturn the Magnitsky Act.
“She’s spent her whole life trying to expose me, and trying to get criminal cases opened,” he said wryly, estimating that 70 percent of the Russian lawyer’s tweets have to do with him. “It’s her profession.”
If so, she’s met her match in Browder, who once was the largest private investor in Russia. In the mid-1990s, he opened a hedge fund there, Hermitage Capital Management. By 2005, though, Putin was consolidating power and Browder was kicked out the country.
Two years later, Magnitsky discovered that Russian officials had fraudulently granted themselves a $230 million “refund” of the government taxes paid by Hermitage’s investment holding companies. Browder and his staff filed criminal complaints with Russian law enforcement agencies. But it was Magnitsky who was arrested a few months later.
Imprisoned under harsh conditions for nearly a year, Magnitsky refused to recant the allegations of theft and corruption. He finally died at age 37 on Nov. 16, 2009 -- hours after being beaten with rubber batons by riot guards, Browder says.
Yet instead of punishing anyone for Magnitsky’s death, Browder said during testimony he gave to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee last summer, “Russian authorities . . . went so far as to offer promotions and state honors to those most complicit in Sergei’s persecution.”
Justice, Browder realized, would have to come from outside of Russia. And in the form of legislation that jams up the financial works of Putin and his cronies.
“My main objective since Sergei’s murder has been to get the Magnitsky laws and sanctions against criminals in Russia imposed in different countries,” Browder said.
Congress passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 and since then Canada, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Lithuania have followed suit with their own legislation. Yet even as the effort expands to other countries, Browder says, a “big job” remains in the U.S: Adding more names to those already on the sanctions list and keeping Putin from achieving his ultimate goal of repealing the Magnitsky Act.
And what of possible Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential election? Asked if he had been contacted by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, Browder said “I can’t comment on that.”
As for Putin’s relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, Browder describes it as “one big enigma.” Still, he maintains that things have “only gotten worse” here for Putin in the Trump era.
“I’ve been in Congress and met with senators and representatives,” Browder said. “And whatever partisan issues there are on other portfolios, when it comes to Russia, there is no partisanship at all. Everyone’s very concerned about the sanctions.”
MEET BILL BROWDER
Browder will speak and sign copies of his book, “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice.” 7 p.m., Dec. 5. Free. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum Theater. 441 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta. 404-865-7100, jimmycarterlibrary.gov.