On Monday, Russian prosecutors announced new charges against U.S.-born British financier Bill Browder. For years, the Kremlin has targeted Browder using Interpol’s “red notice” and “diffusion notice” international arrest warrants, which resulted in his brief and mistaken arrest in Madrid in May 2018. Russia has long sought to shift international human rights scrutiny for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky’s murder onto Browder by means of spurious and unsubstantiated claims. The latest charges against Browder are no different and have broad geopolitical significance, implicating Interpol’s future, European Union passage of a Global Magnitsky Act, and the conversation Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin began at the Helsinki Summit in July 2018.
Monday’s charges against Browder come at a critical moment. This week a Russian candidate Alexander Prokopchuk is poised to be elected Interpol’s next president, and the Dutch government plans to propose an EU-wide version of the Global Magnitsky Act. The law is named for Browder’s lawyer who died in 2009 in a Moscow jail, where he was being held on charges of tax fraud after uncovering evidence that Interior Ministry officials had defrauded the Russian government to the tune of $230 million.
At Monday’s press conference, Russian prosecutors floated a theory that Browder might have been behind Magnitsky’s murder. Russian prosecutor Nikolai Atmonyev, using a phraseology associated with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s reaction to the Skripal attack, said it was “highly likely” Browder poisoned both Magnitsky and Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian businessman who died mysteriously in Surrey after providing information related to Magnitsky’s death.
The Russian prosecutors also indicated optimism that the Trump administration would be newly receptive to these charges, saying: “We really hope that the new leadership of the U.S. Justice Department will adopt an impartial and legal approach to the activities of William Browder. We’re talking about crimes that were committed by Browder and his associates, including in the U.S., where this caused losses for the state.” The new charges resulted in part from allegations submitted by Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer famous for lobbying Donald Trump Jr. to end the Magnitsky Act, who has also argued the narrative around Magnitsky’s death is fabricated.
The Interpol Connection
Interpol is in search of a new leader after its previous president Meng Hongwei, China’s former vice minister of public security, disappeared and then reappeared under arrest on corruption charges during a recent trip to China. The two leading contenders for the Interpol presidency are acting President Kim Jong Yang of South Korea and Alexander Prokopchuk, currently Interpol’s vice president and a former Russian Interior Ministry official. This election, which will happen on Wednesday during Interpol’s general assembly meeting in Dubai, comes at a time when Interpol faces criticism for allowing authoritarian regimes to increasingly abuse its infrastructure against political opponents.
The United States and the West have successfully disarmed Kremlin attempts to weaponize Interpol’s infrastructure against opposition politicians and dissidents in the past. However, if Prokopchuk becomes Interpol’s next president, the organization’s power may be abused further. Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny expressed concern that Prokopchuk would not alter the abuse his supporters have suffered due to Kremlin exploitation of Interpol, and former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul proclaimed Prokopchuk’s potential presidency another blow to the rules-based international order. Vladimir Kara-Murza – a vocal Kremlin critic twice poisoned in Russia – and Browder have also voiced their opposition to Prokopchuk’s candidacy. Browder now counts seven times that the Kremlin has used Interpol in an attempt to arrest him, and this trend is unlikely to change if Prokopchuk becomes Interpol’s next president.
Interpol member states will make a second decision in Dubai this week concerning Russian foreign policy: whether Kosovo will be admitted as a full member with the ability to file “red notices” against Serbian officials that the Kosovar government deems war criminals. This question involves U.S.-Russia relations due to the Kremlin’s historical connections with Serbia and the United States’ role supporting Kosovo.
The EU-Wide Magnitsky Act
The Magnitsky Act’s EU future also hangs in the balance this week at a time when Browder’s efforts to vindicate his late lawyer’s death remain prominent in the international news and on Putin’s mind. Just last week the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards, a who’s who of the anti-Putin opposition, were held in London. Meghan McCain accepted the titular award on behalf of her late father, Senator John McCain. Open Russia’s Vice Chair Kara-Murza presented her the award.
Beyond this annual ceremony, the cornerstone of Browder’s efforts to vindicate Magnitksy’s death is the passage of Magnitsky Acts, laws sanctioning human rights abusers in Russia and around the world. In 2012, Browder secured U.S. congressional support for the first Magnitsky Act to “deny visas to and freeze the assets of those in the Russian ruling elite implicated in Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights violations and corruption.” In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Act, building upon the 2012 law to allow “visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.”
At least six countries have passed versions of the Global Magnitsky Act, including Canada, the UK, and the Baltic states. Now Browder, with Dutch help,is advocating for an EU-wide Magnitsky Act. This week the Dutch government will invite EU member states to pass such legislation at The Hague, and if no such legislation is adopted, the Netherlands will enact its own national law instead.
The Trump Angle
Bill Browder can be a divisive character among Russia-watchers in the United States. In 1998, he renounced his U.S. citizenship for a British passport. He has justified this decision by pointing to the mistreatment his grandparents, Communist Party members, experienced in the United States during the McCarthy era. However, others speculate financial calculations motivated his decision due to the more liberal UK tax rules on foreign income. U.S. officials have at times expressed concern about feeding into Browder’s public persona – his ‘PR machine.’ However, only after Trump took office was there any suggestion that the United States might comply with the Kremlin’s attacks on Browder.
Browder remains one of Putin’s perennial targets, and the Russian president is vocal in his disdain for the British financier. At the July 2018 Helsinki Summit joint press conference, Putin offered the U.S. Department of Justice the chance to question Russians accused of election interference if the U.S. government aided the Kremlin in investigating Browder and allowed the Russian government to question former ambassador McFaul. The Trump administration first announced it was considering Putin’s offer before reversing this statement a day later.
The Russian prosecutor’s appeal to the Trump Administration and acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker during Monday’s press conference is cause for concern. It signals the Kremlin’s desire to continue the conversation started in Helsinki, and absent an explicit rebuff from the U.S. government, suggests the Trump administration’s continued acquiescence to the Putin regime.