“There, but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!” thundered Max Shachtman—once known as Leon Trotsky’s “foreign minister”—in New York City in 1950. By popular account, the line had been cooked up that night by a young Shachtmanite named Irving Howe; it ended the debate between the anti-Stalinist socialist Schachtman and his opponent, Earl Browder, former head of the Communist Party USA, who had been expelled from the party in 1946 at the behest of Moscow Central after suggesting that Soviet Communism and American capitalism might coexist after all.
Browder’s grandson Bill, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, has continued the family tradition of heretical defiance of the Kremlin and as a result has had an experience that in all its eccentricity defines the malign brutality of Russian political life today.
“When I was a teenager growing up in Chicago, I went through the standard teenage rebellion,” Bill Browder told me one afternoon in the Hermitage office in London, during the first of several conversations I had with him in 2011. “But instead of growing my hair long and joining a rock band, coming from my specific family, I decided I was going to become a capitalist. There was nothing that would piss off my family more than that.”
Browder was the largest capitalist in Eastern Europe for a while, but he’s now known as an international justice crusader. In the past two years, he has singlehandedly waged an intercontinental lobbying campaign to get Western governments to pass a suite of sanctions and travel restrictions on Russian officials involved in the conspiracy to arrest, torture, and murder Browder’s thirty-seven-year-old Moscow-based attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered a $230 million tax fraud pegged to companies that had been expropriated by Russian officials. His thanks for exposing the government agents who perpetrated this theft was to be accused of the crime himself. Browder might not be a corpse but for geography, but he’d certainly be snatched up if he ever traveled back to Russia: “I’d be arrested the moment I crossed the border and most likely tortured to death like Sergei.”
Since his muckraking and lobbying efforts on behalf of Magnitsky began in earnest in November 2008, Browder says he has received eleven death threats, including voicemail and text messages left on his mobile and office phones. One simply quoted Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II: “If history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”
Browder’s father, Felix, was also famous: a Princeton-educated mathematician who couldn’t find work during the McCarthy era because he was the son of the onetime head of the Communist Party USA. Rehabilitation came slowly. After a series of job rejections, Eleanor Roosevelt, then chairman of the board of Brandeis University, vetoed the rest of the board who were afraid to hire him, and this enabled Browder’s father to gain a spot at the prestigious college. His work on nonlinear functional analysis would later earn him a National Medal of Science, bestowed by President Clinton in 1999.
Bill himself had an easier path. He went to Stanford’s business school, then worked on East European consulting projects for the Boston Consulting Group in London, moving to Poland in 1990. “I was sent to investigate a failing bus factory for six months,” he told me. “This was during the first privatizations of Polish companies. One day I saw a big ad in the newspaper with lots of financial figures. I did the math, and they were selling companies for half their previous year’s earnings. I’d never seen companies so undervalued in my life. I took my total life savings—then around $4,000—and invested in a tire company, a bank, and a trading company. In the year that followed, the shares went up ten times. I knew I’d found my calling.”
Browder traveled Eastern Europe for a while looking for a way to apply his discovery of East European privatizations before alighting at Salomon Brothers’ Russia desk. He made the investment firm “an enormous amount of money” using the same strategies of finding deeply undervalued shares that had turned exponential profits in Poland. Then, in 1996, he set up Hermitage Capital Management, with the help of the late investor Edmond Safra, who put in $25 million as a gesture of confidence in Browder’s ability to make money.
“The fund went up eight hundred percent in the next eighteen months,” Browder states matter-of-factly. “We’d attracted $1 billion before the Russian market crashed,” in 1998. That’s when he started examining the origins of the crash and why the Russian economy had such trouble withstanding it. The Yeltsin-era economic liberalization effort was spearheaded by Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, the so-called “young reformers” who had ingested Milton Friedman’s economic theories in secret during the Brezhnev years. But their policies required too many compromises with the Soviet-era nomenklatura and get-in-early wunderkinder who had old-school connections. In effect, Russia’s post-Communist “shock therapy” allowed a thin slice of Russian entrepreneurs to control the vast majority of wealth. The era of the oligarchs was marked by decadence, impunity, and radical instability. “Yeltsin gave fifty percent of the Russian economy to twenty-two guys instead of auctioning it off fairly,” Browder said. “The smaller the number of people, the greater the wealth distortion. Those twenty-two guys corrupted everything.”
So Hermitage, during Yeltsin’s political autumn, began conducting forensic research into corruption and theft tied to the oligarchs’ vast holdings, typically spread throughout financial-industrial groups. Browder’s investigative reports had an unprecedented amount of information, which he started to leak to the international media, generally making life as difficult as possible for Russia’s billionaire elite.
He recounts one memorable intervention involving Gazprom, the largest state-owned oil company, whose reserves, in the late nineties, were valued at a 99.7 percent discount to the value of Exxon’s reserves at the same time. “Everyone assumed it was so cheap because everything was being stolen out of the company,” Browder said. “We did a six-month stealing analysis of the company and found that the nine managers of
Gazprom had together stolen oil and gas reserves the equivalent of the size of Kuwait. Interestingly, that still only represented 9.6 percent of Gazprom’s total reserves. The other ninety percent was still there, yet the market assumed everything was being stolen. So Hermitage made Gazprom its single largest investment. We then took our dossier and shared it with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Businessweek, and the Financial Times. It set off a firestorm of political recriminations in Russia.” That’s when an inscrutable former KGB officer turned prime minister named Vladimir Putin stepped in.
Browder used to be Putin’s biggest advocate among Western expats, a position he held despite the Kremlin’s early encroachments into Browder’s own business practices and personal freedoms. “Putin was fighting the same guys we were fighting: the oligarchs. He fired the CEO of Gazprom and replaced him with a new guy whose job was not to steal company assets. Cash flow he could steal, of course, but not the assets. As a result, the share price doubled, then doubled again, finally going up one hundred times.”
From 2000 to 2004, Hermitage enjoyed four years of uninterrupted financial success before Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the politically engaged CEO of Yukos oil and then Russia’s richest man, was arrested on his private jet, a decision Browder at the time supported. “At that point,” he told me, “Putin sent a powerful message to the oligarchs. They’d asked him, ‘How do we make sure we don’t get arrested?’ and he said, ‘Two words: fifty percent.’”
But rather than ending the culture of corruption in Russia, Putin made it a government monopoly. According to Transparency International, Russia today stands one hundred and forty-third out of one hundred and seventy-eight countries in terms of clean business practices. Putin’s United Russia party, which coalesces solely around his personality and political fortunes, is universally known as the “party of crooks and thieves.” Even President Dmitri Medvedev, who has declared a war on what he calls “legal nihilism,” admits that $330 billion disappears annually from government contracts, the equivalent of thirty percent of Russia’s GDP.
In November 2005, for reasons Moscow has refused to disclose, Browder was banned entry to Russia as a “threat to national security” while flying back to the country from a business trip abroad. Realizing that this was a warning of bigger troubles to come, Browder began quietly liquidating all his Russian-held assets, leaving only a “skeletal” presence in the country. It took about six months to divest. At the time, he believed that his blacklisting was a mid-level attack and if only someone at the top of the Russian government were made aware of it, his visa would be reinstated. At the 2007 World Economic Forum at Davos, he personally appealed to Dmitri Medvedev, then deputy prime minister, who promised to investigate. Instead of getting a visa, three weeks later, the Hermitage office in Moscow received a phone message from a Lieutenant Colonel Artem Kuznetsov, an official in the Moscow Interior Ministry’s tax crimes unit, suggesting an informal meeting with Browder’s deputy: “Depending on what you provide and how you behave, the sooner your problems will disappear.” Fearing that the purpose of the meeting was to extort money, Browder did not send anyone to the meeting.
On June 4, 2007, a fifty-strong Interior Ministry police unit headed by Kuznetsov raided both the Hermitage office and the law firm of Firestone Duncan, Browder’s attorneys. The police claimed that they were investigating a tax underpayment of a client company that Heritage advised—this, despite the fact that the company had been audited and found to have paid its taxes in full. The police unit carted off two vanloads of documents, computers, articles of association, and corporate seals—stamps of authentication that accompany directors’ signatures—pertaining to various Hermitage investment companies. When a junior lawyer objected to the confiscation, he was taken to a conference room and beaten to the point of hospitalization. What the raids were really about became clear in October, when Hermitage received a call from the bailiff at the St. Petersburg Arbitration Court inquiring about a recent court judgment passed against one of Hermitage’s registered subsidiaries. Hermitage had no knowledge of any court cases against its companies and Browder asked Sergei Magnitsky, a young lawyer at the Firestone firm, to investigate. First he discovered that Hermitage no longer owned their companies. They had been fraudulently re-registered to a convicted murderer named Victor Markelov using the documents seized by the police. He then found that the documents seized by the police had also been used to forge a number of back-dated contracts claiming Hermitage owed $1 billion to three empty shell companies. The shell companies then sued in three different courts around Russia. Instead of defending the Hermitage companies, lawyers appointed by the fraudsters showed up and immediately pled guilty. In a five-minute hearing, with no questions asked, the judges awarded $1 billion in judgments against the Hermitage companies.
In December 2007, Hermitage filed six two-hundred-and-fifty-five-page complaints with the three main law enforcement agencies in Russia, explaining the intricacies of the fraud. Magnitsky also sent fifty letters to different tax officials and registration offices requesting details on the purloined companies. It took about year, but on June 5, 2008, Magnitsky received a reply that explained everything.
The letter said that the three companies had been re-registered to Khimki, a Moscow suburb, and bank accounts had been opened in their names at a tiny Russian bank called the Universal Savings Bank. Magnitsky analyzed the bank’s filings on the Central Bank website and discovered that immediately after opening the accounts, the bank’s deposits had spiked by $230 million—a figure corresponding exactly to the total tax payment that Hermitage had made in 2006. At this point, the scam made sense: the bogus liability was a way for the fraudsters to retroactively claim that the stolen Hermitage companies had reaped no profits the previous year and that they were therefore entitled to a sizable refund. That refund, the full $230 million, was processed within forty-eight hours, on Christmas Eve, 2007, by both Moscow Tax Offices 28 and 25. It was the single largest tax rebate in Russian history. The money was wired to several banks in Moscow, including Universal Savings, before it left Russia via an Austrian-based bank, Raiffeisen, and later was laundered through Citibank and JPMorgan Chase. By July 2008, Universal Savings was liquidated. The Russian Interior Ministry would later tell Barrons that the stolen tax money couldn’t be tracked down because “records from the bank had been in a truck that exploded.”
In July 2008, Magnitsky and Hermitage had prepared more than ten criminal complaints about the stolen $230 million and sent them to every major law enforcement and regulatory agency in Russia. Instead of investigating the crime, the Interior Ministry responded by opening criminal cases against all the lawyers representing Hermitage. Browder sensed that his lawyers were in danger and offered to evacuate them to London at his personal expense. Magnitsky refused to leave Russia, believing that once the truth was exposed, and the public’s money was returned, he’d be thanked as a sleuth working on behalf of the public interest.
On October 7th, Magnitsky went to the Russian State Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI) and testified against Kuznetsov. He also gave an interview about the fraud to Businessweek (now Bloomberg Businessweek). A couple of weeks later, two of Kuznetsov’s subordinates arrested Magnitsky in his Moscow apartment early in the morning. He was charged with being the director of two Hermitage companies that had allegedly failed to pay any taxes in 2001. His case was assigned to an Interior Ministry senior investigator, Oleg Silchenko, who justified the arrest by alleging that Magnitsky was a flight risk because he had applied for a British visa (the British Embassy has no record of such an application).
Silchenko also supervised the falsification of evidence, including the ex post facto manufacture of a fake “summons,” suggesting that Magnitsky purposefully failed to turn up for questioning and was thus hiding something. Silchenko arranged Magnitsky’s arrest and his subsequent torture to get him to confess to stealing the $230 million, refused him requested medical care, and otherwise made Magnitsky’s three hundred and fifty-eight days in prison a living nightmare. Magnitsky died on November 16, 2009, while awaiting medical treatment for severe pancreatitis in an isolation cell in Butyrka, the Moscow prison infamous during Stalin’s Great Terror as the way station before execution or the Gulag.
The treatment Magnitsky was subjected to in prison has been well documented. He was transferred seven times between four different facilities before being transferred to Butyrka, one of the most notorious Stalinist prisons in Russia. One cell had eight inmates and four beds, so the prisoners had to sleep in shifts. Another had no heat and no window panes in December, so Magnitsky nearly froze to death. Another had a toilet less than a meter away from the bed, with raw sewage bubbling up over the bowl. According to Browder, the lights were often left on all night as a form of sleep-deprivation torture.
In a letter to the head of the Interior Ministry’s Investigative Committee, Magnitsky suggested that “with Silchenko’s participation or with his tacit approval, inhuman conditions were created for me in the detention center, which humiliate human dignity.” The Public Oversight Commission agreed, concluding that “the circumstances that have led to the death of detainee Magnitsky cannot be viewed separately from the course of the investigation of the criminal case.”
On the morning of Magnitsky’s death, his lawyers were denied access to him; officials lied and said he “fell ill and could not leave his cell.” On November 17th, Magnitsky’s mother, Natalia Nikolaevna, who tried to deliver a food parcel to her son at Butyrka, was told he’d been transferred to Matrosskaya Tishina. When she got there, she was informed that the parcel was “unnecessary because [her] son was dead.” Magnitsky’s family requested that an independent pathologist attend the state autopsy. The Russian General Prosecutor’s Office rejected their application, claiming that all pathologists were “equally independent.” The family then applied to have Magnitsky’s body removed to conduct their own independent autopsy. This application was also rejected by the Prosecutor’s Office because “there is no reason to question the results of the state autopsy.” Moreover, Moscow Morgue No. 11 had instructed the family to bury the body immediately because, it claimed, its refrigerators were malfunctioning and refused the request to transfer the body to a different morgue. On November 20th, as Magnitsky’s body was being lowered into its grave, the family got their first view of it and discovered deep lacerations on his wrists, bruises on his knuckles, and evidence that his fingers had been broken. Four days later, Ella Pamfilova, the head of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, prevailed upon Medvedev to open a criminal investigation. “This was Pandora’s Box for Medvedev,” Browder told me. “Here was the anti–legal nihilism president presented with a lawyer who’d uncovered state corruption and was tortured to death for taking the president at his own word, by trying to clean up the legal system.” By now, Russian state television had widely reported the Magnitsky case, which was now a national issue. Three days after his death, the officer in charge at the local police station recommended opening a murder investigation based on the signs of violence on Magnitsky’s body. That recommendation was immediately covered up, and the investigative committee opened an inquiry into just “negligence.”
As a cosmetic gesture at justice, President Medvedev announced in December 2009 that he was dismissing twenty prison officials for negligence in the Magnitsky affair. He never got his story straight with the federal prison service, which publicly confirmed that the firings were actually agreed to in October and had nothing to do with Magnitsky’s death. Furthermore, nineteen of these officials worked in different branches of the penal system—some thousands of miles away from Moscow—and none had any connection whatsoever to Magnitsky’s imprisonment. The majority of those dismissed, furthermore, were reappointed to new posts, promoted, or transferred. The head of Butyrka, Dmitry Komnov, was sacked that same month, only to be named the head of Medved, another detention center a thirty-minute car ride from his old facility.
Russian police, meanwhile, admitted that money had been stolen. But instead of a serious investigation, they handed down the most lenient five-year sentences to Victor Markelov, to whom Hermitage’s companies had been fraudulently re-registered, and to a convicted burglar named Vyacheslav Khlebnikov in an “expedited procedure” closed to the public. No questions were asked about the money, and in spite of Markelov having been convicted for stealing $230 million, he was allowed to keep more than $2 million of assets he had accumulated in the past. Silchenko oversaw that investigation.
In March 2010, the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization, petitioned authorities to open a criminal investigation into Interior Ministry officials for torture and murder. That petition was rejected, on the basis that “no crime had been committed,” in June, around the time that Oleg Logunov, the head of the legal department of the General Prosecutor’s Office and formerly the person who authorized Magnitsky’s arrest as deputy head of the Interior Ministry Investigative Committee, told a radio station in Moscow that the Interior Ministry had no prior knowledge of Magnitsky’s illness and that Magnitsky had never filed any medical complaints in detention. This was despite the fact that there were twenty documents in the possession of the Interior Ministry wherein Magnitsky did indeed plead for medical help. Logunov also publicly stated that the deceased was “guilty.” After a media furor over Logunov’s cynicism, the General Prosecutor’s Office scrapped his comments from its website, and he was forced to clarify that his interview had been given in a “personal” capacity.
Around this time, Bill Browder started to come to the conclusion that justice was not going to be possible in Russia and began looking for it outside the country. In April 2010, he flew to Washington, DC, and met with Jonathan Winer, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement and organized crime. Winer told Browder that the US government could simply invoke executive order 7750, created by President Bush in 2004, to give the State Department carte blanche to ban foreign officials from entry to the US. Browder approached the State Department and asked them to invoke the executive order. “The State Department wasn’t interested,” Browder says. “Its sympathy stopped at the point where they put Sergei’s name into a human rights report. But visa banning they saw as counterproductive to the Obama administration’s ‘reset’ policy with Russia.”
That’s when Browder escalated the issue to the US Helsinki Commission, an independent government agency established in 1976 to monitor Russia’s upholding of the Helsinki Accords and other OSCE obligations. The co-chairman of the commission is the Democratic senator from Maryland Benjamin Cardin, who wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting she “immediately cancel and permanently withdraw” visas held by sixty Russian officials—and their family members and dependents—whom the commission identified as the culprits involved in the tax fraud and Magnitsky persecution conspiracies. “When Cardin published this letter on the Helsinki Commission website,” Browder said, “it lit up the Moscow sky. Never in the history of US-Russia relations had somebody named names and tried to create consequences for human rights abusers on the other side of the globe.”
Indeed, the aftereffects in Russia were palpable. Roughly one thousand newspaper articles were written in the Russian press about Browder’s embryonic campaign to punish everyone from Silchenko to the heads of bookkeeping at the two corrupt Moscow tax offices. The head of the foreign affairs committee of the State Duma compared the visa ban to Gestapo tactics and accused the US of plotting to interfere in the internal affairs of Russia.
Cardin’s appeal to the State Department was rejected. So the senator recommended that Browder speak before the House’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. After that, Browder spoke next to representatives from Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, addressing the gathering extemporaneously as he told the story of Magnitsky in all of its emotional detail to a hushed room.
Afterward, during the question-and-answer period, the commission chairman, Representative James McGovern, did something remarkable for a congressional confab. He licensed actual steps that the Lantos Commission would take following Browder’s testimony:
[W]e will not only send a letter to Hillary Clinton, but I think we should introduce legislation and put those sixty people’s names down there, and move it to the committee and make a formal recommendation from Congress, pass it on the floor, saying to the administration, this is a consequence. You have got to do this, because if you don’t, nothing is going to happen . . . We may not be able to get the Russian courts to do the right thing, but at least we can do something here to show there is a consequence and that we are watching. So you have that pledge that we will do that.
McGovern made good on his pledge. He personally drafted the House’s Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, which specifically targeted the now notorious sixty Russian bureaucrats. The law was submitted in October 2010 with Cardin’s blessing and his own similar legislation in the Senate.
For Browder, the American legislation was an incentive to take his case to Europe. Heidi Hautala, a Finnish Green and the head of the human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament, responded as well to his overtures as McGovern and Cardin had. Hautala had backing from the European Home Affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malstrom, who in May 2010 raised the Magnitsky case with Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov and Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev. The president of the European Parliament invoked Magnitsky directly with Medvedev and Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov in June 2010. By October, the European Commission was saying that the Magnitsky case was a litmus test for the Medvedev presidency. Every EU-Russia session consultation on human rights since June 2010 has mentioned the case by name.
After several abortive attempts to raise the issue in the EU Committee on Foreign Affairs, Hautala and her cosponsor, Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, managed to get a resolution approved on November 23, 2010, by a vote of fifty to nothing. It “urge[d] Russian judicial authorities to press ahead with the investigation” of Magnitsky’s death and called on the EU to ban the sixty officials and freeze their European bank accounts.
“This really upset the Russians,” Browder said. “All these guys send their kids to Europe for their education, they vacation in Europe, and ninety percent of their net worth is held in European banks.” Significantly, Hautala and Schaake’s resolution roughly coincided with the one-year anniversary of Magnitsky’s death, an event that had been greeted in Russia with more brazen state denials: Silchenko and Karpov were given top state honors and, on the anniversary date itself, the Russian Interior Ministry again accused Magnitsky of stealing the $230 million.
None of this matched Browder’s efforts to honor the anniversary, however. He helped a team of Dutch filmmakers produce a documentary, Justice for Sergei, which aired on television in Poland, Georgia, Estonia, and Israel (but not Russia), and was simultaneously screened in six different parliaments around the world. The documentary was exhibited in The Hague as part of the Movies That Matter series cosponsored by Amnesty International. It prompted the Dutch Parliament, in July 2011, to adopt its own sanctions and travel ban resolution pegged to Magnitsky by a vote of one hundred and fifty to nothing.
The Kremlin’s reaction to the EU resolution was fierce and immediate. On November 25, 2010, the Duma issued a press release claiming that the measure in “letter and spirit violate[s] such a fundamental principle of delivering justice in any democratic state as presumption of innocence, and without any competent, not to mention judicial, investigation, [by making] a list of persons guilty of violating human rights, whose responsibility or guilt had not been proven whatsoever. Such measures cannot be seen in any other context, except for a pure political and anti-Russian one.”
Moreover, Browder says that the Duma sent a delegation to Strasbourg a week before the vote to lobby the European Parliament against it. Surprisingly, they found a few members to support them. Browder’s solution was to contact journalists at Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Radio Free Europe, and Voice of America and ask, as he put it to me, “Isn’t it remarkable that there are politicians in Brussels that are fighting on behalf of Russian torturers and murderers? What’s their logic?” That did the trick. An emergency meeting was held by the European People’s Party, the largest faction in Brussels, to decide how the party would vote on the Magnitsky resolution. On December 16, 2010, the resolution passed, three hundred and eighteen to one hundred and sixty-one.
The Russian Interior Ministry officially “closed” the case on the missing $230 million in March 2011. However, that same month, Russian Untouchables, a website organized by friends of Magnitsky, which “crowd-sources” the investigation into the Magnitsky fraud, received a valuable tip from one whistleblower. Two secret bank accounts had been set up at a Credit Suisse branch in Zurich after the $230 million was fraudulently refunded. (The money traveled extensively through a network of shell companies apparently created by notorious offshore consultancies, including one New Zealand firm, GT Group, which has allegedly helped finance North Korean arms trafficking and Mexican drug cartel money laundering). The Credit Suisse accounts were registered to Vladlen Stepanov, the husband of Olga Stepanova, the former head of Tax Office No. 28, which oversaw the refund, and show that he received $10.9 million toward a Cyprus-based shell corporation, and another $800,000 that was used to pay construction fees on his seaside villa in the elite resort town of Bar, Montenegro. Another $4 million went to purchase a separate property on Dubai’s Palm Island and two more condominiums for Olga Stepanova’s deputies. Further digging disclosed that Stepanova’s family built a $28 million mansion outside of Moscow, which was designed by celebrity Russian architect Alexey Kozyr. (To keep this property secret, the family never registered it with any real estate authority; on paper, the mansion simply didn’t exist.) Stepanova had resigned from Tax Office No. 28 in January, but she was quickly hired by her old manager to work for a new federal agency created by Medvedev to outfit Russian police and military with new equipment.
On May 19, 2011, Senator Cardin escalated his Magnitsky-pegged piece of legislation to the upper camera. The resulting bipartisan Senate bill, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act (cosponsored by John McCain and twenty-four other senators), in fact expanded on the previous version by allowing for any foreign officials to be banned, and to have their US assets frozen, if they were credibly suspected of “gross violations of human rights,” including the extrajudicial killing and torture of pro-democracy activists, journalists, and anti-corruption campaigners. “[D]on’t expect to visit Disneyland, Aspen, or South Beach,” was how Cardin phrased it in his letter announcing the legislation, already referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Because it’s not restricted to Russia and the Magnitsky affair, the Cardin bill stands to be the single most ambitious human rights law the United States has ever put in place. “The Chinese, Libyans, and Syrians should be all over this,” Browder said. “But they haven’t figured out that it applies to them, too.”
“The reaction of the Russian authorities to the Magnitsky bill has got the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kremlin worked up like nothing I’ve seen,” said David Kramer, the executive director of Freedom House. “Talk on that case is motivated by efforts to stanch that legislation.” For Browder, passage of the bill is only a matter of time. No US politician will vote against it, nor will President Obama be able to veto it without looking like he favors Russian murderers over US citizens. The State Department has reacted with characteristic opportunism: in July, it quietly put a handful of the Cardin sixty on a visa blacklist as a way of preempting the Senate vote. However, this initiative, rather than easing tensions between Moscow and Washington, only amplified them. The Kremlin’s response was to threaten to pass its own sanctions bill against US officials. What crimes did the Russians have in mind? The jailing of Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer now incarcerated in New York for illegal gun-running to almost every war zone in the last quarter century. (Nicolas Cage’s character in the 2005 film Lord of War was partly based on Bout, who has been credibly tied to Russian intelligence agencies.) “If they’re comparing Sergei Magnitsky to Viktor Bout, then we don’t have much to talk about,” Kramer told the New York Times when the State Department sanctions story broke.
On November 28, 2011, almost two years to the day after Magnitsky’s death, Hermitage Capital released a seventy-five-page report featuring newly obtained Russian state documents about the final hours of his life. They show that upon his arrival at Matrosskaya Tishina prison, Magnitsky had been handcuffed to a bed and beaten with rubber truncheons by eight riot policemen. Dr. Vitaly V. Kornilov, the civilian emergency psychiatrist called to treat Magnitsky, testified to how he’d been prohibited from entering the isolation cell for an hour and eighteen minutes and that when he finally was let in, he was “shocked to find the patient not in a hospital room, but in a regular cell, on the floor dead.” Magnitsky lay in a pool of urine, his wrists and hands badly bruised—clearly from the handcuffs chafing as he writhed in pain from the truncheon blows and his inflamed abdomen. As documented in the Public Oversight Commission report, the head doctor of Matrosskaya Tishina, Dr. Aleksandra V. Gaus, lied about where, when, and how Magnitsky had died. Moreover, as also uncovered by Hermitage Capital, a Russian detective at the Investigative Committee office for Moscow’s Preobrazhensky District recommended opening a criminal investigation into Magnitsky’s death due to enough evidence suggesting foul play. That request was ignored. As Browder said in a House of Commons event organized by my think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, a week or so before the seventy-five-page report was publicly released, “The Russians are very bureaucratic and they seem to be very proud of their bureaucracy in the sense that everything is documented.” For the last two years, his team of independent investigators had trawled through all these files to uncover the grisly truth about how Sergei Magnitsky was murdered.
For a man who once thought that Vladimir Putin “[has] been good for the Russian people and good for the Russian markets,” Browder’s transformation into a leading irritant in the system of patronage and impunity that Putin built has exceeded his grandfather’s Communist heresy. With a single-mindedness bordering on obsession, Browder has defied cynics, foreign policy realists, the White House, world governments, and the Russian state by telling a horrible story and asking that justice be done. What’s more remarkable is the fact that, so far at least, he’s beaten them all.
Michael Weiss is the communications director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank focused on democratic geopolitics.