Punishing Russia’s murderous kleptocrats

Bill Browder is a marked man. It’s hard to think of him in that context when visiting his modern offices in London, but it is also hard to come to terms with the fact that people can be murdered with impunity in the heart of Britain’s capital city.

Yet, as the Litvivenko inquiry concluded in January 2016, Russia’s Federal Security Service, with the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has already murdered an opponent of the regime while he was sipping tea at the Pine Bar in London’s swank Millennium Hotel. Litvivenko was poisoned with plutonium. In all probability, Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky was also murdered in his Berkshire home. Closer to the Kremlin, Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Russian opposition, was shot dead while walking home, and Nemtsov’s colleague, Vladimir Kara Murza, was poisoned.

In a Mafia state, these events are not unusual. They are meant to terrify the regime’s enemies and bolster the ranks of insiders. Yet the tactic has not worked on Browder. Until 2009, he was a businessman who made a fortune speculating on the Russian market. Since then, he has become a full-time criminal justice activist. As he told me, “you can’t do both and be effective.” Browder’s book, Red Notice, sets out the path for his new mission.

On Nov. 16, 2009, Browder’s lawyer and accountant Sergei Magnitsky, who had been arrested on trumped-up charges and imprisoned without a trial, was murdered by his prison guards. He had been working to expose the officials, police and judges who had defrauded the Russian people on a scale barely understood, even today. To the end, Magnitsy refused to give in and recant. Thus, Browder believes he, too, must not give up.

He has already succeeded in persuading the U.S. government to pass the Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on some of the Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s murder, and has been lobbying the Canadian government to do the same. The sanctions would mean that those responsible for Magninsky’s murder would no longer be able to travel to Canada, park their ill-gained fortunes in Canadian banks and that their funds here would be frozen.

The measure had unanimous, all-party support, at least until the 2015 federal election. The Liberal party even went so far as to include this wording in its official statement to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress: “A Liberal government will introduce legislation, modelled on the U.S. Magnitsky legislation, to impose sanctions against Russian officials responsible for the illegal imprisonment in Russia of Ukrainian citizens.… A Liberal government will immediately expand the list of sanctioned Russians to include influential businessmen and close Putin supporters, Igor Sechen and Vladimir Yakunin.”

Browder saw the proposal to expand Canadian sanctions to include all human rights offenders as a positive sign that Parliament would now, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in power, be voting on the issue. Yet it hasn’t done so.

When Browder was in Ottawa last March, he met a variety of new parliamentarians, all of whom promised support. Unfortunately, the Department of Global Affairs gave him a cool reception and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion was too busy to meet him. There has even been talk now of “re-engaging with the Russians.”

“Canada is currently under no obligation to punish human rights abusers,” Browder said. However, as the Special Economic Measures Act is scheduled for revision over the next couple of weeks, parliamentarians will have the opportunity to “vote with their morals.” When I asked him why he considers Canada important in his quest for justice, Browder said, “Canada is viewed worldwide as an honest arbiter. Even those with strong anti-American views tend to see you as fair.”

In a grotesque parody of legal proceedings, Sergei Magnitsky was tried and found guilty of massive tax evasion in a Moscow court in July 2013. Not only was Magnitsky innocent of all charges, he was also dead. The trial is a bare-face demonstration that Russia’s state-sanctioned kleptocrats will go to any lengths to protect their loot. The fact that the same courts, presided over by the same kleptocrats, had also condemned Browder in absentia, only added to the overall demonstration that justice cannot be done, never mind seem to be done, in today’s Russia.