Bill Browder used to be an ardent admirer of Vladimir Putin back in 2003 when the American was a big-shot investor in Russia.
he financier made a fortune after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new post-communist Russia. At one stage, he valued his investment fund, Hermitage Capital, at $4.5bn.
But now he sees himself as “Putin’s number one enemy”. He has campaigned relentlessly against the Russian president and his cronies for 13 years.
He has travelled all over the world trying to persuade governments to clamp down on the Russian regime by chasing the wealth of its corrupt enablers.
As early as 2013, he addressed an Oireachtas committee urging our politicians to take action. In Ireland’s case, his plea was in vain.
The way to get to the oligarchs, he believes, is to freeze their assets and seize their superyachts and their vast mansions. He believes the authorities must stop the men who bankroll Putin using the West as their pleasure outlet and “piggy bank”.
He tells Review that he has been threatened with death and kidnapping because of his campaign. Russia has issued numerous Interpol warrants for his arrest and has applied to have him extradited. It has sentenced him to prison in his absence and tried to lure him with an apparent honeytrap.
As he describes it in his new book, a “stunning six-foot blonde with full red lips” called Svetlana tried to seduce him at a conference buffet counter in Monaco. She later sent him emails, saying she could not stop thinking about him, with kisses as a sign-off, but he was not tempted.
Putin has at times appeared so obsessed with nabbing Browder that he even suggested at a press conference with Donald Trump in 2018 that the financier be handed over in part-exchange for 12 Russian intelligence officers.
Browder, now a British citizen, watched the press conference and was stunned when Trump reacted positively, saying: “I think that’s an incredible offer.”
Speaking over the phone from London this week, Browder described his fears after he was namechecked by Putin.
“I was in Aspen, Colorado, at the time and I imagined a convoy of blacked-out SUVs from the Department of Homeland Security coming to the place where I was staying and putting me on a rendition flight back to Moscow,” he says.
God knows what would have happened to the financier if he had been taken to Russia. Fortunately for him, the swap never happened.
Browder’s campaigning zeal is driven by the death of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison cell in November 2009. He had been in custody for nearly a year.
According to Browder, Magnitsky had uncovered a $230m tax fraud involving corrupt officials. He accuses the Russian authorities of murder — and the thrust of his campaign is to seek sanctions against those who committed the crime, as well as others guilty of human rights abuses and corruption in Russia and elsewhere.
Browder has enjoyed spectacular success in persuading governments to introduce these measures, known as Magnitsky laws. They are in place in the US, the UK, Australia and Canada and in a limited form across the European Union.
While opposing the corruption, violence and human rights abuses of the Putin regime is a now popular cause, Browder has run into stiff resistance over the past 13 years, particularly in the EU.
When he came to Ireland to campaign for anti-corruption laws, he was thwarted by some sharp elbows directed at our legislators by the Russian embassy.
The embassy on Orwell Road used the plight of Russian orphans as a form of blackmail to kill off any legislation.
“I brought the idea of a Magnitsky act to the Irish parliament,” Browder recalls. “I presented the case to the Foreign Affairs committee and asked them to produce a resolution calling on the Irish government to issue sanctions against Magnitsky’s killers. I got a favourable and robust reaction from members of the committee.”
In his address, Browder described how Magnitsky had died. During his long period in custody, he became seriously ill with pancreatitis, and Browder says he was denied medical treatment and tortured.
“They put him into an isolation cell and allowed eight riot guards with rubber batons to beat him for one hour and 18 minutes until he died, at the age of 37.”
Browder told the committee: “It is my duty to his memory and his family to make sure that justice is done.”
He was hopeful that a resolution supporting an Irish Magnitsky act — modelled on US legislation — would be passed. This would have listed the officials involved in Magnitsky’s death, frozen their assets in Ireland and denied them visas.
But the Russian ambassador to Ireland at that time, Maxim Peshkov, scuppered the plan. He sent a letter to the committee, warning that the motion “will not enrich bilateral Russian-Irish relations and can have a negative influence” on an adoption agreement being negotiated between the two countries.
Browder says: “On the back of that threat, [members of the committee] pulled back from that resolution and nothing happened.”
When the US introduced its Magnitsky legislation in 2012, Putin banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families — a fact mentioned in the ambassador’s letter.
In his new book about his long campaign, Freezing Order, Browder describes the US ban as “heinous”. The orphans that Russia put up for adoption by foreigners at that time, he writes, were the sick children and often would not have survived in a Russian orphanage.
“By banning Americans from adopting these children, Putin was effectively sentencing some of them to death to protect his own corrupt officials,” he writes.
So what attracted the London-based financier from Chicago to Russia in the first place, and why did his relations with the authorities there suddenly turn so sour?
Browder says he was drawn to Russia as a strange form of rebellion against his family.
“My grandfather was head of the Communist Party of America, so I decided to become a capitalist,” he says.
The Berlin Wall came down as he was finishing at Stanford Business School and he moved to Moscow in 1996 to start investing after a mass privatisation programme. Shares in former Russian state companies could be picked up at knockdown prices, but Browder soon found that he came into conflict with oligarchs.
As he puts it, the companies that his fund invested in were being robbed blind by the oligarchs and corrupt officials, and he tried to fight back.
For a time in the early 2000s, his interests aligned with those of Vladimir Putin, as the new president tried to seize power from the tycoons.
In his earlier biographical book, Red Notice, Browder wrote: “I naively thought Putin was acting in the national interest and was genuinely trying to clean up Russia.”
But as he soon discovered, ridding Russia of financial corruption was not part of the plan. Putin merely wanted to show who was boss and that he had power over the oligarchs. He wanted a piece of their spoils.
Browder suggests that Putin’s share of their ill-gotten gains is as high as 50pc, or even more.
By bringing the oligarchs to heel, he reckons, Putin has become the richest man in the world.
The financier continued to expose the oligarchs, which he believes made him persona non grata in Moscow.
In November 2005, as he arrived in Moscow airport from London, he was stopped in the VIP lounge, detained for 15 hours and expelled from the country. He was declared a “threat to national security”. He liquidated his fund’s assets in Russia and got its staff out of the country, but his troubles were only beginning.
According to Browder, false accusations were made against a senior executive at the firm and Magnitsky discovered that criminals had stolen the identities of Browder’s companies to fraudulently apply for a $230m tax refund.
After reporting the allegations to the authorities, Magnitsky was himself detained on suspicion of helping Hermitage evade $17.4m in taxes.
After his death in November 2009, an investigation by Russia’s presidential council on human rights concluded that he had been severely beaten and denied medical treatment while in custody.
His death and the publication of the report by the council on human rights took place during the pause in Putin’s presidency when his ally Dmitry Medvedev took over from 2008 and 2012.
In a bizarre twist, with Putin back in charge, Magnitsky was put on trial posthumously in 2013 and found guilty of tax fraud by a Moscow court. At the same trial, Browder was also found guilty in his absence and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Browder said the prosecution would “go down in history as one of the most shameful moments for Russia since the days of Joseph Stalin”. The case was described as “sinister” by Amnesty International. So far, nobody has been convicted over Magnitsky’s death and ill treatment, despite compelling evidence that he had been beaten.
Browder says he went looking for justice in Russia and filed criminal complaints, but Putin exonerated everyone involved.
When he found that he was getting nowhere, he sought help in the US, Britain and the EU. He says he has had mixed responses to his campaign for Magnitsky laws.
“When I visited the government in Berlin, they were very cold towards me when it came to calling for sanctions on Russian officials,” he says. “It was as if I had a turd on my head.”
The EU passed a version of the Magnitsky Act in December 2020 but, Browder says, “they didn’t call it a Magnitsky act because there was such pressure from some member states not to upset the Russians. They have not sanctioned any of Magnitsky’s killers.”
The EU act only covered human right abuses, and not corruption.
“It’s really a shameful appeasement, what the EU has done in this case,” he says. “It’s shameful, because the US, the UK, Australia and Canada have sanctioned his killers, but the EU hasn’t.”
Browder says he helped build the template being used by governments to punish Putin over the invasion of Ukraine.
Politicians had previously been reluctant to introduce sanctions, he says, because they were getting the economic benefit from Russia, and did not want to upset the flow of money. Now the mood has changed.
“My feeling is that the only thing we can do now is starve Putin of the money he needs to run this expensive war,” he says.
“He looks weak, because the invasion has been a total cock-up. It’s hard to be a brutal dictator when he looks so weak and Russia can’t dominate Ukraine, [a country] with a population that is 75pc smaller and a military budget that is 90pc smaller.”
What happens next is anyone’s guess, he adds. “But I don’t believe there will be a palace coup, because he picks everyone around him for their loyalty and the oligarchs are too afraid of him. I think the most likely scenario is that Russia becomes like North Korea — [Putin] carries on in a pariah state in a low-grade war.”
To stand up to Putin and continue with his campaign must have required courage, and Browder shows no sign of flagging.
The fact that Russian authorities have been able to place him on Interpol wanted lists has at times put him in difficult situations. He travels from country to country hoping to persuade legislators and prosecutors to curb the influence of dirty money.
In 2018, he was staying in the presidential suite of a grand hotel in Madrid when he was suddenly arrested, ostensibly by Spanish police on a Russian Interpol warrant. For a terrifying moment as he was driven away from the hotel, he wondered if he was being kidnapped and whether his captors really were who they said they were.
He had previously been tipped off by a US government official that an extrajudicial rendition, presumably by the Russians, had been planned for him. “It would be horrifying being arrested and extradited, but much worse being kidnapped and taken to Russia, and I was not sure if this was a legitimate arrest,” he says.
Browder tweeted that he had been arrested and was in the back of a police car. It turned out that he was being held by Spanish police and he was soon relieved to learn that the warrant was deemed invalid. He was released immediately.
When he switched on his phone again, there were 178 missed calls, including one from Boris Johnson.
Meanwhile, Ireland has still not implemented its own Magnitsky measures, but that may change soon.
Brendan Howlin, the TD and former Labour leader, has introduced a bill that would enable the authorities to seize the Irish assets of human rights abusers. He says the bill has wide cross-party support and could be applied in a wide variety of cases including arms suppliers, generals or politicians directing assaults in Ukraine.
The bill has been welcomed by Browder, as he continues his campaign to honour the memory of Sergei Magnitsky and curb the corrupt practices of the Putin regime.
‘Freezing Order’ by Bill Browder is published by Simon & Schuster
https://www.independent.ie/news/i-feared-i-would-be-kidnapped-how-bill-browder-became-putins-no-1-enemy-41531612.html ‘I feared I would be kidnapped’: how Bill Browder became Putin’s No 1 enemy