Magnitsky fund boss brings Russia blacklist campaign to Europe
The investor pushing to blacklist Russian officials implicated in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky has brought his campaign to Europe's capitals, in a move that could have far-reaching implications for their relations with Moscow.
The London-based head of Hermitage Capital Management, William Browder, was in Paris on Monday to push for a French version of the US Magnitsky Act, a December law that blacklisted Russian officials tied to Magnitsky's prison death.
The law has prompted a crisis in US-Russia ties, with Moscow retaliating by banning US adoptions of Russian orphans.
Ahead of talks with French lawmakers, Browder told AFP he was sure that within a year European capitals would have followed Washington's lead in imposing sanctions on Russian officials.
"The Russian government tortured and murdered Sergei Magnitsky, our lawyer, after he uncovered a massive corruption scheme," Browder said.
"The Russian government has taken every step to cover up the involvement of the officials... and then attack the victim. It has become clear to us that we have to get justice outside of Russia."
Magnitsky died in 2009 at the age of 37 of untreated pancreatitis after almost a year in pre-trial detention following his arrest on fraud charges.
He had been detained after reporting to Russian authorities an alleged $235 million tax fraud by state officials involving the falsification of returns belonging to Hermitage, then a major investor in Russia.
Magnitsky was charged with the very crimes he claimed to have uncovered and his death in detention -- which Hermitage says saw him denied medical treatment -- became a rallying point for critics of corruption in Russia.
Browder, who has since abandoned investing in Russia, has led an international campaign to punish officials allegedly involved in the original crime and Magnitsky's prosecution.
US lawmakers took the first major step in December by approving the Magnitsky Act, which compels Washington to freeze the assets and deny entry to those tied to the case.
Moscow slammed the law as an "unfriendly and provocative attack" and retaliated with the adoption ban, widely regarded as the toughest piece of anti-US legislation during President Vladimir Putin's 13 years in power.
After meeting with officials in Germany on Friday, Browder was to see members of the French National Assembly and Senate this week to build up support for a French version of the Magnitsky Act.
"Our main objective now is to replicate what we've done in America in Europe, particularly in France", where many Russian officials own property, he said.
While the US law was an important precedent, he said, a French decision to ban entry and seize assets would have far more impact on those allegedly involved in Magnitsky's prosecution and death.
"That's something that would touch them in a profound way," he said. "The UK and France are the two most popular destinations for people to own property and have second homes in Europe among the elite of the Russian criminal world."
Hermitage created an original list of 60 names linked with the case in 2010 -- including figures as high up as Russia's deputy prosecutor general and deputy interior minister -- but the number continues to grow as legal action continues against Magnitsky despite his death.
In a bizarre twist, Russian prosecutors have continued to pursue their case against Magnitsky following his death. The trial began late last month and was adjourned to February 18 after his lawyers refused to participate.
Browder, a 48-year-old US-born British citizen, is also a defendant in the case in absentia.
Russia has also continued to take action against the United States following the adoption of the Magnitsky Act and last month announced plans to ban all US meat imports and the termination of a longstanding bilateral drug control agreement.
Browder described Russia's reaction to the law as "extremely cowardly", in particular for its decision to ban the adoption of often disabled and troubled Russian orphans by US citizens.
"Putin did the most cowardly thing a man can do, he picked a group that can have no voice, no power whatsoever, the most vulnerable, weak group that can exist in society, which is disabled Russian orphans, and he attacked them", Browder said.
"It's truly the sign of a completely morally bankrupt man," he said.
He said Russia's reactions and the continued prosecution of Magnitsky were keeping the case in the spotlight and he was confident that European parliaments would soon join the US in backing sanctions.
"Every step that they take to defile Sergei's name in posthumous prosecutions, and so on, only fuels the fire of this story," he said. "I'm sure that within 12 months we will have sanctions in Europe."
© 2013 AFP