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Bill Browder: why I fear for my life

Posted by Red Notice
on 11 Mar 2015 | 0 comments
Tagged in: Red Notice, Sergei Magnitsky

"Greatest capitalist in the world" turned human rights campaigner, Bill Browder is fighting for justice for a Russian friend whose murder he blames on the Kremlin

By Victoria Lambert, The Telegraph, 11th March 2015

With his sober navy suit, frameless glasses and cropped salt-and-pepper hair, Bill Browder looks more like a high-street bank manager than the once self-proclaimed greatest capitalist in the world. His soft voice does not obviously denote a man dedicated to human-rights activism.

And you wouldn’t mark him down as a potential target for Russian gangsters whose links may go all the way to President Vladimir Putin.

Yet Browder is all these things, especially the latter. He admits today, from his anonymous London office: ‘‘If Putin wants me dead, I’ll be dead. I could have a thousand bodyguards and it would make no difference. But I’m not petrified. I’m not the kind of person who will cower in fear.’’

His words carry an extra edge today; he is still shocked at the death of Boris Nemtsov, the 55-year-old former deputy Russian prime minister shot four times in the back a week ago. Nemtsov, the most prominent opposition figure to be killed during Putin’s 15-year rule, was murdered while strolling across a bridge within sight of the Kremlin.

Putin called his death a shameful tragedy, and the Kremlin has denied any involvement. Browder is unconvinced.

“Putin terrifies by symbolism. He picks on the most prominent person to scare the s––– out of everyone else.

“He’s talking out of both sides of his mouth. He wants everyone to know it was him. Nemtsov himself said no one is safe.”

Nemtsov’s killing has taken Browder straight back to 7am on November 17 2009, when he was told that Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old father of two and Browder’s friend and lawyer, had been found beaten to death in a Moscow prison cell.

“I was devastated,” says US-born Browder. He catches his breath. “It was like a knife plunging into my gut. I’m still devastated by his death.”

For the past five years, Browder has been trying to secure justice for Magnitsky’s family. The financial analyst has devoted his time to learning the intricacies of international human rights law, endlessly lobbying in Capitol Hill, Brussels and Westminster to respective administrations.

His efforts have resulted in threats of kidnapping and death, and in three extradition attempts by the Russian authorities.

His recently published memoir, Red Notice, reads – deliberately – like a thriller, documenting Browder’s encounters with the Russian bear over the past two decades.

There is no doubt he is seen by Putin as a dangerous pariah: one-hour documentaries testifying to his many crimes against Mother Russia have been aired on state-run television.

Yet his original forays into post-communist Moscow in the mid-Nineties, at a time of economic collapse, were incredibly fruitful – and aligned him, ironically, to Putin.

To the fairly raw management consultant, barely out of Stanford Business School, the spoils on offer seemed limitless.

“I made my first investment in Poland, in 1990, when I spent what I had – $2,000 – on shares, and saw my investment rise 10 times in value,” he says. “That’s the financial equivalent of crack cocaine. I was inspired to invest further.”

Shares in Russian companies were virtually being given away following Communism’s collapse.

Backed by Edmond Safra, a financier, to the tune of $25 million (£16.6 million), in 1996 Browder set up Hermitage Capital, and saw the value of his portfolio double.

“Everybody wanted to invest with me. I was only 31 but I was the expert – within a year, I was managing more than a billion dollars,” he recalls.

Browder was the largest investor in Russia, and at 33, found himself on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.

 “I ran the best performing fund in the world; I was being flown out to private yachts in the Med by investors, giving talks where it was standing room only.”

He says wryly: “It all added up to what they call on Wall Street a ‘sell signal’, a clear sign it’s time to sell up and get out.”

Not that he saw that at the time, so when Russia went through a further economic crisis in 1998 – and the rouble was devalued by 75 per cent – Browder’s fund lost more than $900 million.

Driven by a “terrible sense of responsibility” Browder decided to “fight my way out of this hole”.

He invested in Russian oil, sat back and waited for a nice recovery.

But his plans ran aground when the 23 oligarchs – the men who had become unimaginably rich by seizing control of Russia’s natural resources – began to run amok in the wake of the crisis, which had prompted many international investors to pull out.

He describes an era of asset- stripping and embezzlement.

“And there I was down to my last 10 cents in the dollar, and about to lose that. So I embarked on a campaign to stop them from stealing.”

Opposing the oligarchs made him a target. He hired 15 bodyguards, and while he slept was guarded by men with sub-machine guns sitting in the living room of his Moscow apartment.

His financial fortunes recovered, and he decided to go after Gazprom, one of the largest companies in the world.

“Through analysis, I was able to prove that oil and gas reserves the size of Kuwait had been stolen by nine members of management,” he says.

Browder invested heavily, and then went public with his investigations. He watched as the share price rose by 134 per cent, then doubled and doubled again. By the time it stabilised, the share price had gone up 100 times, he says.

He applied the same forensic methods to other big companies – exposing corruption, and simultaneously making money. As Putin came to power in 2000, the two appeared to be working in synergy.

“He was an unwitting and powerful ally in my fight. Putin wanted to take back the powers usurped by the oligarchs, and so it was like the saying ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’.

“I never met Putin or spoke to him. Yet Russia is a country of conspiracy theories. Nobody could accept that I was acting on my own volition. I was seen as Putin’s guy.”

That impression was confirmed when Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest and most powerful oligarch, was arrested in 2003 on Putin’s orders and jailed.

Now Browder looks back and sees that as a turning point, and a chilling indictator of Putin’s style of governance. “Putin allowed TV cameras to film Khodorkovsky on trial, and if you are a defendant in Russia, you sit in a cage. Imagine seeing the richest man in Russia sitting in a cage.”

The oligarchs submitted to Putin’s rule, and one by one, says Browder, made over huge amounts of their companies to him. “I believe he is now the wealthiest man in the world.”

Official support for Browder dried up, and in late November 2005, he was turned away at customs in Moscow when returning from a weekend in London. He had been there seeing his son from a first marriage. (Browder, who took British citizenship in the late Nineties, is married again now to a Russian, and has two more children but refuses to talk about his family.)

“I didn’t see this coming,” he admits. “They declared me a threat to national security. When Russians turn on you, they turn viciously.”

He decided to make sure his staff were safe and his clients’ money protected. All local workers were sent to Britain at his expense, and the stock – then worth $4.5 billion – quietly liquidated. ‘‘I was out. It was the end of the Russian story.’’

Except it wasn’t. About 18 months later, 25 police officers raided the small office he had kept in Moscow and seized company documents that were ultimately used to commit a $230 million (£153 million) tax rebate fraud.

Russian taxpayers were, essentially, the victims.

It was the largest such fraud in Russian history, and it was received, processed and paid out in a single day – Christmas Eve 2007.

“In my opinion, President Putin had authorised my expulsion from Russia, but I found it inconceivable that he would allow state officials to steal $230 million from his own government. I thought that if we brought this to the attention of the authorities, the good guys would get the bad guys, and that would be it.

“I had hired a team of lawyers, including a man called Sergei Magnitsky, head of tax practice at a US firm called Firestone Duncan. I remember he warned me early on: ‘Russian stories never have happy endings’.”

He was right – not long afterwards, criminal cases were launched against all of Browder’s lawyers.

 “I asked them all to leave, to come to London. In the end, only Sergei refused.”

A month later, Magnitsky was arrested, put in pre-trial detention and tortured.

The aim was to get him to withdraw his testimony and take responsibility for the alleged missing $230 million – and implicate Browder.

“But he turned out to be man of integrity,” says Browder. “To Sergei, the idea of perjury was more poisonous than any thought of physical harm.”

Magnitsky fell ill, developing pancreatitis and gallstones, but was refused medicine, and moved to a maximum-security prison, which Browder describes as “medieval”. On November 16 2009, he was found beaten to death in his cell.

Browder vowed to get justice for him. “And for the past five-and-a- half years, I have been campaigning for that.”

The campaign consumes him, and he faces constant frustration. ‘‘One would think it would be too embarrassing for Putin; yet he has exonerated every single person involved, promoted some of the most complicit and awarded them state honours on the one-year anniversary of Sergei’s death,” he says.

Browder’s battle finally yielded fruit when he came up with the idea of punishing the killers from outside Russia.

“These men act like they do for money, money which they like to keep outside Russia,” he says, pointing out that Russians like to ski in the Alps, visit the south of France and send their children to British schools.

“So I came up with idea of freezing their assets and denying them visas.”

He lobbied Washington tirelessly, enlisting senators and congressmen. Even Boris Nemtsov turned up in Washington and told him: “You’ve found the Achilles heel of the Putin regime. This is the perfect thing that America can do. But can you broaden it to include all the bad guys in Russia?”

Browder was rewarded eventually with the passing of the Magnitsky Act in 2012. In April of the following year, 18 Russians were listed as subject to visa bans and asset freezes in the US.

Now he is trying to get similar legislation in place in Britain and Europe.

“The big prize is Europe. We have cross-party support here but the British Government has completely blocked implementation. They don’t want to upset Russia. They talk tough and do nothing as far as Russia is concerned.”

But Browder says Nemtsov’s murder has spurred him on. “Now I must fight for him. The Magnitsky Act can be used against his killers too.”

Of the risk to his personal safety, he says: “I’ve been under threat for eight years – of death and kidnapping, and via three attempts to use Interpol to extradite me. I’m being sued all over the world for all sorts of nonsense. But it is my duty not to back down.”

His next step will be to turn Red Notice into a Hollywood film, developing it himself.

Does he believe Putin has read it?

“Putin doesn’t read,” he says scathingly. “I’m sure of that – he’s not a man of reflection.”

He would, presumably, find it an uncomfortable read. Red Notice is a compelling book that grows progressively more chilling, culminating in this passage towards the end: “I have to assume that there is a very real chance that Putin or members of his regime will have me killed some day. Like anyone else, I have no death wish and I have no intention of letting them kill me.

“I can’t mention most of the countermeasures I take, but I will mention one: this book. If I’m killed, you will know who did it.”

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