The Russians Killed My Lawyer: This is How I got Congress to Avenge Him

Posted by Red Notice
on 05 Feb 2015 | 0 comments
Tagged in: Red Notice, Sergei Magnitsky, , US Magnitsky Act

By William Browder, Politico, February 3rd 2015

It was 7:45 a.m. on Nov. 17, 2009, when my phone rang. It was my lawyer, Eduard, who had a horrible message to relay: “Bill, Sergei is dead.”

Sergei Magnitsky was one of my lawyers in Russia. He’d been arrested and detained in Moscow for nearly a year after exposing Russian government corruption. I knew that he had been mistreated, but the fact that he’d been killed was beyond my worst nightmare.

The pain I felt upon hearing of his death was physical, as if someone had plunged a knife into my gut. After pacing the room and hyperventilating for several minutes, I made a vow to Sergei, to his family and to myself that I wouldn’t let the people who killed him get away with it. That vow changed my life, and eventually would change the United States’ foreign policy towards Russia.

Sergei Magnitsky’s death provides a lens for everything that’s wrong in Russia today. The story started over a decade ago when I ran Hermitage Capital Management, the largest investment firm in Russia. I was very successful, but when I started to complain publicly about corruption at the companies in which my fund invested, President Vladimir Putin had me expelled from the country and declared a threat to national security. Eighteen months later in June 2007, my Moscow offices were raided by the police, and the documents they seized were used to fraudulently re-register the ownership of our investment holding companies as well as to create $1 billion of fake tax liabilities. In December, the corrupt officials used their new “ownership” of our companies and the fake liabilities to fraudulently reclaim $230 million of taxes we paid in the previous year. It was the largest tax rebate in the history of Russia.

After these raids I hired Sergei Magnitsky, then a 35-year-old tax lawyer, to investigate. Over the following months he helped us file criminal complaints against the police officers involved in the raids with a different branch of Russian law enforcement and was so brave that he even testified against them. In retaliation, he was arrested by two of the same Interior Ministry officers against whom he had testified.

He was held in custody for 358 days and tortured in an effort to get him to retract his testimony. He never did. When the officials involved finally understood he would never break, they had him chained him to a bed while eight riot guards with rubber batons beat him to death.

There was no plausible deniability to Sergei’s torture and murder. In his 358 days in detention, Sergei had written over 450 complaints documenting what had been done to him. We received copies of these complaints, and together they provided one of the most granular accounts of human rights abuse to come out of Russia in the last 35 years.

Because of all the evidence, I figured the Russian authorities, corrupt as they were, would have to prosecute the people involved. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, the Russian government exonerated everyone, and even gave some of the most complicit promotions and state honors.

Since there was no possibility of getting justice for Sergei inside Russia, I decided to seek justice outside of Russia. That’s when I took his story to Washington.

I had discovered an executive order called Proclamation 7750, which allows the State Department to impose visa sanctions on corrupt foreign officials. I thought if I could convince the U.S. government to impose 7750 on the Russians who killed Sergei, it would hit them right where it counted. Corrupt Russians loved to travel and throw around their money, and if America were off-limits for them, it would be devastating.

On a gloomy day in early March, 2010, I went to the State Department to meet the official who headed the Office of Russian Affairs to make my pitch. After several minutes of talking about Sergei’s case, I brought up the idea of invoking 7750.

As soon as he heard those words he stiffened. “I’m aware of that order. But how is it applicable here?” he asked defensively.

“It’s applicable here because the people who killed Sergei are obviously corrupt,” I said. “The secretary of state should ban their entry into the U.S.”

This was not what he wanted to hear. Ever since Barack Obama had become president, the main policy of the U.S. government toward Russia had been one of appeasement. The administration had even coined a new phrase for it: “Reset.” This policy was intended to repair the broken relations between Russia and the United States, but in practical terms it meant that the United States wouldn’t mention unpleasant subjects such as “human rights abuse” so long as Russia played nice in trade relations and nuclear disarmament.

Now here I was asking for something completely at odds with this policy. “I’m sorry, Mr. Browder,” he said. “But, I still don’t see how 7750 applies to the Magnitsky case.”

I found his stubbornness infuriating, but tried to keep calm. “This is the most well documented human rights abuse case since the end of the Soviet Union. It’s been independently recognized that a number of Russian officials were involved in Sergei’s death.”

The meeting had gone completely off track, and now this man wanted it to end. He stood. “I’m sorry, Mr. Browder,” he said, ushering me toward the door, “but I have to get to another meeting. I’d be glad to discuss this with you another time, but I simply can’t at the moment. Thank you again for coming in.”

I shook his hand knowing full well that I wouldn’t be returning to his office anytime soon.

The next day I had a meeting at the U.S. Helsinki Commission with a Senate staffer named Kyle Parker. The commission had a specific mandate to track human rights in Russia and other former Soviet Union states, and I thought they might be receptive. Kyle spoke perfect Russian and had a firm grasp of everything that was going on inside the country. He and his boss Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin knew of Sergei’s case from a testimony I gave to the Helsinki Commission the previous summer when Sergei was still alive. They were both appalled by Sergei’s murder and wanted to do something, but apart from publicly condemning it, they weren’t sure what they could do.

I told Kyle about Proclamation 7750, and that I had suggested it to the State Department.

 “That is a great idea. How did the person at the department react?” Kyle said.

“Not well. As soon as I said ‘Seventy-seven Fifty,’ he deflected and obfuscated and shooed me out of his office.”

Kyle perked up. “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to talk to Senator Cardin and ask him to send a letter to Secretary Clinton requesting her to invoke Seventy-seven Fifty,” Kyle paused. “Let’s see if they treat a United States senator the same way.”

Two months later, Cardin wrote this letter to Clinton and posted it on the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s website. It ended beautifully: “I urge you to immediately cancel and permanently withdraw the U.S. visa privileges of all those involved in this crime. Doing so will provide some measure of justice for the late Mr. Magnitsky and his surviving family.”

The letter was amazing, but even more important than the words were the 60 names Cardin posted alongside it. These were all the Russians who played a role in Sergei’s false arrest, torture and death or the crimes he had uncovered—gathered from complaints filed by Sergei while he was in detention along with corroberating information provided by his lawyers in Russia. The picture of culpability was crystal clear, and the publication of the list was explosive. Within 10 minutes of its going online, the Russian newswires started reporting on it. Within 30 minutes, the Western press picked it up. By the end of the day a new term had been created and repeated over and over, “the Cardin List.”

Bill Browder, founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, was the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005. He is the author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice (Simon and Schuster), from which this article is adapted.

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