Putin's vengeance: Murder, corruption and a dead man put on trial... how one man rose to the top of Russia's most-wanted list for daring to stand up to country's president

Posted by Red Notice
on 09 Feb 2015 | 0 comments
Tagged in: Red Notice, Sergei Magnitsky

  • ·      Sergei Magnitsky died in November 2009 after 358 days in Russian prison
  • ·      Wrote daily letters about beatings but treatment was never investigated
  • ·      His friend William Browder successfully campaigned for Magnitsky Act - placing travel bans on Russian human rights abusers
  • ·      In return Vladimir Putin tried him for Magnitsky's murder in his absence
  • ·      Russians also tried Magnitsky - first dead man to be tried since 897AD
  • ·      Mr Browder says it is possible Russian regime is trying to kill him

Extract by Bill Browder for the Mail on Sunday, 8th February 2015

In the first part of his terrifying new account of facing down the Russian oligarchs, William Browder recalled in shocking detail how his colleague Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death by Putin’s goons. 

Magnitsky’s ‘crime’? Daring to expose the multi-million pound corruption of the president’s criminal associates. 

Here in the second and concluding extract, Browder reveals how pursuing justice has now left him fearing for his life - and the stupefying lengths that Putin will go in search of retribution.


My phone ring at 7:45 a.m. on November 17, 2009. It was my colleague, Eduard, and he had a terrible message: 'Bill, Sergei is dead.'

Sergei was one of my lawyers in Russia. He'd been arrested and detained for almost a year in Moscow after exposing a $230 million tax rebate fraud perpetrated by Russian government officials.

The pain I felt when I heard this message was visceral, as if someone had plunged a knife into my gut. After pacing the room for several minutes, I made a vow to Sergei, his family, and to myself that I wouldn't let the people who killed him get away with it.

There was no plausible way the Russian authorities could deny that Sergei was tortured and murdered. He'd been detained for 358 days, and during that time had written over 450 complaints documenting how his captors sadistically abused him. 

Together these complaints provided the most granular account of human rights abuse to come out of Russia in decades.  I assumed that because of this evidence the Russian authorities would be forced to arrest and prosecute the officials involved. 

Unfortunately I couldn't have been more wrong. Instead of arresting the perpetrators, the Russian government began a cover up that led all the way up to Vladimir Putin.

It became clear to me that there was no possibility of getting justice inside Russia, so I decided to seek justice outside of Russia.

My first stop was the Foreign Office to meet Michael Davenport, their man on the Russia desk. He was a Cambridge educated lawyer who wasn't particularly welcoming when I entered his office.

'How can I help you, Mr Browder?' he said stiffly.

'I'm here to talk about the murder of Sergei Magnitsky.'

'Alleged murder,' he corrected me.

'It's not alleged,' I said. 'The evidence is overwhelming and there's a cover up going on in Russia right up to the top. I think the British government should get involved.'

He leaned forward and chose his words carefully. 'Mr. Browder, there's very little the British government can do in a situation like this. 

'We must let the Russian authorities conduct their own investigation.'

From that moment on it was obvious that I was going to get no help from the British government, so I decided to see if I would have any better luck in Washington.

I'd recently discovered a U.S. statute that allows the State Department to impose visa sanctions on corrupt foreign officials. 

I went to the State Department and presented this idea to Michael Davenport's U.S. counterpart and who was equally unenthusiastic.

Undeterred, I kept making the rounds in DC, and eventually found a sympathetic ear in U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin. 

He took the idea of imposing visa sanctions against Sergei killers and ran with it. Together with a group of other members of Congress, they drafted a bill called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. 

The Magnitsky Act would impose visa sanctions and asset freezes in the United States on people involved in the conspiracy that killed Sergei.

It was formally introduced in the U.S. Congress on May 19, 2011. When word spread, Russian opposition figures and human rights activists came out of the woodwork to tell the senators and congressmen that banning visas and freezing assets was the Putin regime's Achilles heel. 

They told their own stories of human rights abuse and asked the senators if it could be expanded to include all human rights abusers in Russia. 

After roughly a dozen such meetings, the senators realized that they were onto something much bigger than just one case, and broadened the bill to sanction all human rights violators in Russia.

From there, the number of supporters grew quickly. It was an easy sell. There wasn't a pro-Russian-torture-and-murder lobby in Washington to oppose it. No senator would lose a single vote for banning Russian torturers and murderers from coming to America.

It took over a year for Congress to bring it to a vote, but the House of Representatives did just that on November 16, 2012, the third anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky's death.

I watched the vote on CSPAN from my London office. One by one, the votes trickled in—and nearly all were in favor. The bill was going to sail through and I was ecstatic.

But when the vote was about halfway done, my phone rang. I picked it up, assuming it was some well-wisher wanting to talk about what was happening in Washington.

'Bill, it's Marcel.' Marcel was an accountant who worked with a man named Alexander Perepilichnyy, who'd contacted us months back and whose information had been indispensible to our campaign.

'Hey, Marcel. Can this wait?'

'Sorry to bother you, Bill, but it's important.'

'Okay, what is it?'

'Alexander Perepilichnyy is dead.'

I was speechless.

Perepilichnyy had been a banker in Russia who managed money for some of the corrupt tax officials involved in the $230 million fraud Sergei had uncovered. 

Perepilichnyy had lost a lot of their money in the 2008 global financial crisis, and these corrupt officials opened a criminal case against him. He fled Russia with his family and rented a house in Surrey trying to lay low.

While in Britain, he heard about our justice campaign and decided to share certain details about his client's dirty money. 

After verifying it, we passed his information to the Swiss attorney general, and the Swiss authorities subsequently froze $20 million being held in Swiss banks. 

They also began a major money laundering investigation, with Perepilchnyy as the main cooperating witness.

In the wake of the Swiss investigation, Perepilichnyy became aware of a contract that had been put out on his life, and had even taken out additional life insurance for his wife and children in case the worse had happened.

And now, it had.

I hung up with Marcel and let this news sink in. I was certain that Perepilichnyy had been killed and tried to contact the police in Surrey to share my suspicions. 

But they were completely unhelpful, initially denying that a man named Perepilichnyy had even died. I eventually learned that he had dropped dead in front of his house after an afternoon jog. 

The Russians were known for poisoning their adversaries abroad. Most notably, the KGB killed Alexander Litvenenko with radioactive polonium at a hotel in Mayfair. 

I was sure something similar had happened to Perepilichnyy. I pressed the police for an autopsy and a full investigation, but they refused.

After nearly three weeks of police inaction, I felt I had no choice and went to the press. I shared the details with a reporter at the Independent, who investigated the case, and then ran an article with the headline, 'Supergrass Who Held Key to Huge Russian Fraud Is Found Dead in Surrey.' The story ricocheted between every television station, radio show, and newspaper in the country.

After the press frenzy, the Surrey police finally announced they would launch a full investigation, including a toxicology analysis. Unfortunately, they were starting three weeks after he died, and I was sure that whatever poison had been used on him would have disappeared. Sure enough, the analysis was inconclusive and the police came to incredulous conclusion that there was 'nothing suspicious' about his death.

While I was feeling completely unnerved by Perepilichnyy's death, the Magnitsky Act passed the U.S. Senate 92-4, and was signed into law by President Obama on December 14, 2012. It had taken nearly three years, and I was stunned that we had finally gotten some measure of justice.

And another person was stunned too: President Vladimir Putin.

In a normal world, the Russian response to the Magnitsky Act should have been a tit-for-tat retaliation reminiscent of a Cold War spy exchange. The Americans sanction a few Russian officials, and the Russians respond by doing the same. End of story.

But that was not how Putin decided to play it. Instead, immediately after the Magnitsky Act passed, he began a major quest to find ways to lash out against America and cause real pain. 

He came up with something that did just that: banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

The adoption ban was significant because over the previous decade Americans had adopted over sixty thousand Russian orphans. In recent years the Russians had restricted most American adoptions to sick children—those with HIV, Down syndrome, and spina bifida, among many other disorders. Some of these children wouldn't survive without the medical care they would receive from their American families.

This meant that in addition to punishing American families, Putin was also punishing, and potentially killing, defenseless orphans in his own country. To say that this was heartless doesn't even qualify as an understatement. It was evil, pure and simple.

Putin had hit his mark. But while he expected a bad reaction from the United States, he had no idea what kind of hornet's nest he'd stirred up in his own country. 

One can criticize Russians for many things, but their love of children isn't one. 

Russia is one of the only countries in the world where you can take a screaming child into a fancy restaurant and no one will give you a second look. Russians simply adore children.

In reaction to the adoption ban, on January 14, 2013 Russians started to assemble in the streets of Moscow carrying placards and homemade signs denouncing Putin. 

As the protesters made their way through the city, their numbers grew to roughly fifty thousand. This was not the usual crowd of politically active people, but grandmothers, schoolteachers, children riding on their fathers' shoulders, and every other kind of Muscovite. Their signs said things like SHAME! and STOP LYING! and HEROD!

This whole affair had cost Putin something much dearer than money: his aura of invincibility. 

Humiliation is his currency—he uses it to get what he wants and to put people in their place. In his mind, he hasn't succeeded until his opponent has failed. In Putin's world, the humiliator cannot, under any circumstances, become the humiliatee. Yet this is precisely what happened in the wake of the adoption ban.

What does a man like Putin do when he is humiliated? He lashes out against the person who humiliated him.

Ominously, that person was me.

The first sign of this retaliation out came when the Russian authorities announced in early 2013 that they would put me on trial in absentia. They'd been using the threat of a fabricated case for years to try to get me to stop the justice campaign for Sergei, but the passage of the Magnitsky Act had pushed them over the edge.

Trying a Westerner in absentia was highly unusual, but it wasn't the worst part. Their truly unbelievable move was to also try Sergei Magnitsky.

That's right. They were going to put on trial the man they had killed. Even Joseph Stalin, one of the most zealous mass murderers of all time, a man responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million Russians, never stooped to putting a dead man on trial.

But in March 2013, that is exactly what Vladimir Putin did.

Putin was creating legal history. The last time a dead person had been prosecuted in Europe was in 897 CE, when the Catholic Church convicted Pope Formosus posthumously, cut off his papal fingers, and threw his body into the Tiber River.

The nastiness didn't stop there, though. Days before the trial was set to begin, NTV, the state-controlled television station, aired a 'documentary' about me called The Browder List. 

In it, they accused me of causing the devaluation of the ruble in 1998; of stealing $4.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund; of being an MI6 agent; and, finally, of murdering Sergei Magnitsky myself.

I might have been upset by this, but their fabrications were so amateurish that no person watching could possibly believe a word of it. But credibility didn't even matter to the Russian authorities. Everything they did came from a well-worn playbook that they mindlessly repeated over and over.

Our trial began on March 11 at the Tverskoi District Court in Moscow. Every Western government, media outlet, and human rights organization viewed this as an appalling miscarriage of justice, and couldn't fathom why Putin was even doing it. 

The cost to Russia's international reputation was enormous and there was no upside.

But this didn't stop Putin. The trial concluded on July 11, 2013. On the day the decision was read, six guards in berets and black uniforms stood watch over the defendant's cage, but since they had no one to guard or cart away afterwards they were an unnecessary formality.

Rarely speaking above a whisper, the judge read the decision. It took him well over an hour to describe all of Putin's fantasies about what Sergei and I had done wrong. 

When he was finished, Sergei and I had been found guilty and I'd been sentenced to nine years in prison in absentia.

It was all a show. This is Russia today. A stuffy room presided over by a corrupt judge, policed by unthinking guards, with lawyers who are there just to give the appearance of a real trial, and with no defendant in the cage. 

A place where two and two is five, white is black, and up is down. A place where an innocent man who was murdered by the state can be made to suffer from beyond the grave.

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 tell you about most of the countermeasures I take, but I will mention one: my book about this whole story.

If I'm killed, you will know who did it. And when my enemies read my book, they will know that you know. 

Red Notice: How I Became Putin's No 1 Enemy, published by Bantam Press on February 5, £18.99 

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