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Putin's Enemy Number One: Bill Browder's Russian Revenge

Posted by Red Notice
on 06 Feb 2015 | 0 comments
Tagged in: Red Notice, Sergei Magnitsky

Some call him Vladimir Putin's enemy number one. Bill Browder set up a massively successful investment fund in Russia, then discovered that government officials had ripped him off to the tune of more than $200 million. He left, but one of his lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, was seized and jailed. And not just jailed, but beaten to death.

Transcription of Interview on PM with Mark Colvin, ABC News Australia, 6th February 2015

MARK COLVIN: Some call him Vladimir Putin's enemy number one. Bill Browder set up a massively successful investment fund in Russia, then discovered that government officials had ripped him off to the tune of more than $200 million.

He left, but one of his lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, stayed, was seized and jailed. And not just jailed, but kept in freezing cells and denied treatment for pancreatitis and gall stones.

Then after nearly a year, guards beat him to death.

So Bill Browder set out to avenge his lawyer. Now he's written a book, Red Notice: How I Became Putin's No. 1 Enemy.

I asked him about how he'd reacted after Sergei Magnitsky's murder.

BILL BROWDER: After Sergei was killed I went on a campaign to get justice for Sergei and we couldn't get any justice inside of Russia. They exonerated every single person involved. They promoted a number of them and gave some of them state honours.

And so I thought what I considered to be the best justice I could get outside of Russia, which was that these people all killed him for money and they like to spend their money abroad, so we came up with this idea of banning visas and freezing assets of the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky and it eventually became known as the Magnitsky Act.

And I went around...

MARK COLVIN: This is a United States Act?

BILL BROWDER: Well, I went around to parliaments and the congress all over the world, asking different politicians to do something with this idea and the US grabbed onto it and Senators John McCain and Benjamin Cardin - a Republican and a Democrat - got together and came up with the Magnitsky Act as they called it. And it passed the Senate in 2012, 92-4, 89 per cent of the House of Representatives passed it, and the president signed it on December 14th, 2012.

MARK COLVIN: This must have got somebody really angry because, you know, you don't prosecute a dead man. A dead man by definition can't defend himself?

BILL BROWDER: Indeed, and so Putin just went absolutely out of his mind with this. He just couldn't believe it. It was just such an affront to Putin that there would be some justice for his corrupt officials that he did a couple of things.

The first thing he did was he retaliated by banning the adoption of Russian children by American families, disabled Russian children for the most part. And so this was effectively a death sentence for a lot of orphans in Russia who would be able to go into good families who could take care of them and help them with their medical problems. But Putin banned their adoption which was effectively - so he was basically putting his own orphans, disabled orphans, to death to protect his corrupt officials.

And he was still so angry after that that he then organised a trial of Sergei Magnitsky, who was dead for three years, put him on trial. It was the first ever trial against a dead man in the history of Russia and one of the, I think the first time in like a thousand years it had happened anywhere in Europe.

MARK COLVIN: Even in the time of, say, Gogol, I mean we think of Gogol's novel Dead Souls, you might think that there would be something similar in Russian history, but even for Russia this was new.

BILL BROWDER: Completely unprecedented in Russia. Even Stalin, who was killing everybody all the time, never put a dead person on trial no matter how - this shows you that we got completely under Putin's skin with this whole idea of freezing the assets.

And it's now clear why, which is that this was the precedent for what's been now used in the Ukraine and it's going to be used actually in a lot of different situations in Russia. We've - this was Putin's Achilles' heel. He's not running a situation like the Khmer Rouge or Kim in Korea. He's got a lot of money. He's stolen a whole lot of money and he keeps it in the West and all of a sudden all that money's at risk which is why he went so crazy.

MARK COLVIN: And you say he personally, because there's been a lot of allegations that his cronies, his circle, largely ex-KGB people themselves, have stolen a lot of money but there've also been these allegations that Putin has billions overseas. Do you credit those allegations?

BILL BROWDER: In my opinion he's absolutely one of the richest men in the world. And the way that he holds his wealth is not in his own name, he holds it in the name of what I call oligarch trustees. These are trusted oligarch friends who are people you'll see, whose names you'll see on rich lists, who hold his assets on his behalf.

And so when you see someone who's got a net worth of $10 or $20 billion you should probably cut that in half because half that money is Vladimir Putin's. And so he's definitely a rich guy and he doesn't even make any pretence about that and he's got all this money and that's his Achilles' heel is the money. He doesn't keep it in Russia. He keeps it in Western banks which can be ultimately seized.

MARK COLVIN: So effectively you see Russia now as something like a mafia state with Putin as the godfather?

BILL BROWDER: Yes. I think that Putin is running an organised crime group and he has all the powers of a sovereign state to pursue his organised crimes. And, I mean, he's a lucky criminal compared to the, like, Italian mafia who have to operate sort of under the radar. He can operate openly as a criminal and then use his military, use his law enforcement, use Interpol, use every different possible tool that a Western or a normal state have, in addition to committing his crimes. And so this makes him a much more formidably criminal than almost any criminal out there because, I mean, he's a criminal with nuclear weapons at his disposal.

MARK COLVIN: But the price of oil has crashed, the price of oil and gas, the rouble has crashed. Is he invulnerable? Can this go on forever?

BILL BROWDER: I think he's very vulnerable. I think that he's in a very uncomfortable position because on one hand, because power is so concentrated he can exercise all this control, but on the other hand because power is so concentrated all it takes is somebody to knock him off and then take that power away from him.

One could never do a coup in the United Kingdom or Australia because power is so diffuse. There's parliaments, there's checks and balances, there's courses, institutions, but in Russia it's just one guy. And so I think that he's very scared and the fact that oil has come down and the rouble has crashed, it puts him at a very vulnerable position because all it take is one bad move and then all of a sudden there's a million people at Red Square protesting like there was in Ukraine a few months back and that's his fear.

And in fact that's why he, I believe, he's launched this war in Ukraine is to distract everybody, to create a sort of nationalistic fervour so nobody pays attention to the fact that they're not happy with his mode of government.

MARK COLVIN: In the meantime Britain's just opened this inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko. That must have, yet again, focussed your mind on your own personal security?

BILL BROWDER: It doesn't take an inquiry into Litvinenko to focus my mind on my security. These people have made various direct and explicit threats

.

MARK COLVIN: What kind?

BILL BROWDER: Kill me. To kill me and to kidnap me, and they make them through voicemails, text messages, emails and other forms and...

MARK COLVIN: What do they say?

BILL BROWDER: They start out by saying "what's worse, prison or death?". Another one said "history tells us that anyone can be killed" quoting The Godfather. And various other types of things, you know "we're coming to get you".

So it's, you know, we're fully aware that these people are mad, we're fully aware of what they are capable of doing and we're obviously taking whatever precautions can be taken, but at the end of the day if Putin wants to kill me, he'll kill me.

MARK COLVIN: Bill Browder, author of Red Notice: How I Became Putin's No. 1 Enemy.

And I recommend the longer version of that interview which you'll find on our website from this evening.

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