For the man who holds the title of Vladimir Putin’s Number One Enemy, it is perhaps striking how utterly ordinary Bill Browder is. Outside of the office, away from other people due to the pandemic, the staple armoury of his suit and glasses is nowhere to be found. A bookcase sits behind him, nondescript and not intrusive. We are interrupted at times, due to work going on elsewhere in his house — and he apologises profusely at least twice.  

The one time founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, Bill Browder was familiar with the world of high finance. Drawn to Russia, the organisation he headed was the investment advisor to the largest foreign investment fund until just fifteen years ago. Following his expulsion from the country — on the trumped up concern of ‘national security’ — $230 million dollars of taxes previously paid by the organisation Browder headed up were stolen. The Russian authorities, with their track record of corruption, theft, and other such crimes, had made their ubiquitous presence known. 

Justice for Sergei

Browder’s lawyer, a man by the name of Sergei Magnitsky, had begun to uncover the sophisticated modus operandi of the scheme — and would later end up paying for it with his life. Arrested by the very same authorities he had implicated in a crime, he was taken, tortured, and would come to die in a Russian prison. Aged 37, it was November 2009.  Since then, Browder has spent his time waging a war of accountability around the world. 

We are all familiar with the phrase ‘justice must be seen to be done’ — the indirect theme of Red Notice, the book Browder authored. Magnitsky has had his name attached to a piece of legislation that is slowly spreading across the globe. The Magnitsky Act is one measure of accountability — imposing sanctions, such as assets being frozen, on those responsible for his death. The legislation has also been used as a tool, to ensure that others who commit similar acts will also be held to account. 

There’s the European Court for Human Rights, but that doesn’t create justice

In a world of the 24-hour news cycle, where terms such as ‘scandal’ and ‘OUTRAGEOUS’ are thrown about, time has moved on. It is now just over a decade since Magnitsky died. I ask Browder what he thinks; is there really such a thing as justice?

‘Do I believe that there is justice and accountability? Yeah, I think absolutely. Well, I think that we’re living in a highly unjust world, but it doesn’t mean you can’t fight for justice and accountability. 

‘And that’s what I’ve spent the last 11 years doing in the Magnitsky case, and the Magnitsky case has morphed into a much bigger cause which is using this new justice tool, the Magnitsky Act, to create some accountability. And it’s interesting because when I first began my mission for justice, there really were no tools’.

He added that you could complain at a government level, however: ‘Most Western governments would say “yeah, we’re equally appalled and we’re gonna criticise it, or condemn it”. They might even say “we’re very upset with this whole thing”. But the criticism of a government doesn’t really have any impact on dictators who are doing terrible things, but if you actually create some kind of targeted punishment, it definitely does’.

The more he thinks, the quicker Browder speaks — and with more conviction as he responds to the questions. He also mentions he is speaking to different victimised groups from around the world who wish for access to the Magnitsky Act to create a measure of justice. But was he surprised by this, that governments at an international level will tread a diplomatic line, even if it avoids the subject of justice completely? 

Referencing his background as a fund manager and not having a foot in the world of human rights advocacy, he responded that he began to scour the globe for mechanisms of justice — but there was nothing tangible. 

‘There’s the European Court for Human Rights, but that doesn’t create justice; it creates a decision against a government where they pay €50,000, but nobody goes to jail, nobody … there’s no individual cost to anybody who committed a crime. There’s the international Criminal Court, but again you have to have like 100,000 dead before they take a case, not just 1, or 5, or 10. 

‘And then there is a concept called the Universal Jurisdiction where, in theory, under a law in this country, other countries, if a crime is so horrific, you could take the jurisdiction here and prosecute it, but it never has actually been done’.

Yes, I was surprised he said — and described himself as feeling upset and frustrated, once he realised we live in a dysfunctional world. Avenging the murder of Sergei Magnitsky while demanding accountability has become something of a lifetime mission — and one that shows no sign of abating or being given up any time soon. 

‘Justice should be if somebody commits torture, they should go to jail for a long time. They should be investigated, prosecuted, convicted and go to jail’. Browder adds that that is how he would define real justice, but if a country has a corrupt judicial system, that is unlikely in the short term. 

You have to be obsessive, you’ve gotta be tenacious, you’ve gotta be over and over and over again

‘And so, then I say to myself, “Justice should be at least the lack of impunity”. In other words, to create some consequence for the person who does something terrible, when they currently enjoy impunity which means no consequence’.

Amidst the horror of Covid-19 and the continuing human and economic fallout, sometimes stories are missed, in the dash to report on the pandemic. However, Reuters pointed to a series of events that are underway, at the time of writing, in Switzerland. (You can read more here.) 

The tax money claimed to have been stolen by Magnitsky was transported and laundered to other countries around the world — with Browder’s team working hard to trace and recover. Disappointingly, Swiss prosecutors have dropped an almost decade-long investigation into a scandal related to the death of Magnitsky. 

The article said: ‘The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) confirmed a report in the Tages-Anzeiger paper on Friday that it was ending its inquiry into whether Russian officials defrauded tax authorities and laundered the proceeds through Swiss banks, as alleged by businessman Bill Browder’s investment fund Hermitage Capital’. 

Asked for his thoughts, Browder said: ‘I’m shocked that Switzerland is mired in such dirty corruption. I would have thought that with all the eyes of the world on them, on this case, that they would have done the right thing. And there’s clearly something truly disgusting right underneath the surface that needs to be rooted out, exposed and dealt wit’.

Will he be intervening seems an almost idiotic question to ask. Browder replies, matter-of-factly: ‘We already are. Big time’. He mentions that he has spoken to other world leaders, who will be questioning the legitimacy of Swiss law enforcement — but is almost annoyingly discreet, refusing to name any of them because we will find out soon enough. 

Trump’s America

‘If he were elected in his second term, I thought that I would be at real personal risk travelling to the United States. And so, for me it was a very personal election, in that I think that I’m now safe to travel to the United States, because Trump won’t be president after January. And so, for me, it’s a huge relief’.

While researching this piece, it was notable that Browder once commented that if the US put its full force on Russia, it would be devastating — though unlikely to ever be the case during a Trump administration. But what about a Joe Biden presidency? 

I’m shocked that Switzerland is mired in such dirty corruption …

‘Trump was extremely sort of positive towards Vladimir Putin — and that positivity leaked into lots of foreign policy. So for example, Putin hates NATO, Trump hated NATO. Putin wanted to have access to certain military bases in Syria, and so Trump pulled out US soldiers from Syria. Various things like that. And so I’m quite confident that Biden will take a much more sort of sober and tough approach towards Putin. And you can tell how tough Biden is gonna be towards Putin by Putin’s unwillingness to congratulate or even acknowledge Biden’s victory’.

Do you think Vladimir Putin is worried about an incoming Biden administration? 

Noting that Putin received a ‘huge windfall with the election of Donald Trump’, Browder suggests that Putin is ‘bracing himself for the impact’ of a US President who will be tougher on Russia than the last four years have seen. 

Sergei and the future

I pause and turn the conversation to its original topic: Sergei.

If you could speak to Sergei, what do you think he’d say; what would he be thinking? 

‘I think that Sergei would be kind of surprised’ replies Browder, given that his name is on legislation around the world — when he was but a regular, middle-class tax specialist. ‘He never set out to become a revolutionary or world-changing figure. His conduct as an ordinary man in standing up to this brutal regime led to this international justice movement. I think he’d be pretty surprised, but I think he would also be proud and satisfied that having made the ultimate sacrifice it’s changed the world’.

Next on the list is a follow-up book to Red Notice, due out at the end of 2021. The book is titled Freezing Order, a reference to tracing the money connected with Sergei Magnitsky’s murder. ‘I don’t wanna tell you too much more than that’, says Browder and laughs lightly, adding that it would give away the ‘punch line’. 

Rumours have also been circulating of a film being made of Red Notice, the bestselling book describing Browder’s journey to Russia, the murder of his lawyer, and a decade spent canvassing the globe in pursuit of justice for Magnitsky. ‘Hollywood is a very capricious and dysfunctional place’, Browder dryly notes. Adding that it is something he has been working on.

But in the middle of all the hubbub, the rhythm of a campaign, the pulse-beat of accountability, there is still a team with humans at the centre of it all — one of whom found himself in the midst of a most dangerous cat-and-mouse game. Away from his campaign efforts, where can we find Bill Browder? A self-described family man, he can be found going through the routine rituals of modern life; walking the dog, going to the park. 

However, he notes that his is a cause that runs 24-hours hours a day, seven days a week. ‘You don’t succeed in getting countries to pass legislation by doing it halfheartedly. You have to be obsessive, you’ve gotta be tenacious, you’ve gotta be over and over and over again’. Then he dryly notes that although this is his life’s work, it doesn’t mean he won’t be having burgers and fries with his kids at the weekend. 

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