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Bill Browder on the UK’s Shifting Policy Toward Russian Elites
23 May, 2018

Are times getting tougher for Russian oligarchs in London? Some might view the U.K.’s failure to promptly renew Roman Abramovich’s visa last week as an indication of the government’s mounting crackdown on Russia and its wealthy.

American-British businessman and legal activist Bill Browder thinks that although there are no “specific details” of what the U.K. government is doing in connection with Russian billionaire Abramovich, there has been a growing amount of “bad press about Russian dirty money in the U.K.” recently. Add to that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy in relation to countries like Ukraine and Syria, as well as the recent poisoning of ex-Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and you might see a pattern.

“There's been a lot of concern and fear about Putin's bad activities around the world… It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that some people start losing their visas,” Browder told Hromadske. “We don't know whether Abramovich is one of those, but based on ‘when there's smoke, there's fire,’ there's good reason to suspect that he may be one of the people in this category.”

Before 2005, Browder spent more than 10 years running a successful investment fund in Russia. His business involvement ended when he was expelled from the country and all his companies became subject to government tax fraud.

READ MORE: Britain's New Safety Measures Put Russian Assets at Risk

While in Russia, Browder also got to work with anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in a Moscow prison in 2009.  The tragic death led Browder to become the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 U.S. legislation that applies travel bans and asset freezes to individuals suspected of human rights abuses from all over the world.

He reports that the U.K.’s version of the Magnitsky Act is likely to become law soon, having passed in the House of Commons and won support in the House of Lords. “This is going to send shivers down the spines of Putin regime officials, who are involved in terrible human rights abuses,” he says.  

Browder points out that Ukraine could also adopt a Magnitsky Act and use the legislation to apply pressure to all the people involved in the false arrest and persecution of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov in Russia.

“The Ukrainian government has not done all that they could for Sentsov,” he says.

READ MORE: From Crimea to Siberia: How Russia is Tormenting Political Prisoners Sentsov and Kolchenko

Hromadske spoke to Bill Browder about the prospects of the U.K.’s Magnitsky Amendment and what Britain is doing to disrupt the flow of Russian “dirty money.” He also explained how legislation like the Magnitsky Act could be used in fighting the illegal imprisonment of Oleg Sentsov and other Ukrainians in Russia.

We are following the news on the possibility that the UK denied a visa for Roman Abramovich, the Russian businessman. Of course, it's up to the migration service to decide, we don't know the details, but could you comment on this? And what's going on with London's stance on Russian business and Russian businessmen in the UK, regarding this recent development?

I don't know the specific details of what the British government is doing in connection with Abramovich, I'm just familiar with the same headlines that everybody else is familiar with. But what I can say is that there's been a lot of bad press about Russian dirty money coming to London over the last 12 months. There's been a lot of concern and fear about Putin's bad activities around the world, and that has heightened very dramatically with the poisoning of Skripal in Salisbury, and it's now come to a head, which is that the Prime Minister has said very clearly that they're going to have a close look at all the Russian oligarchs in London. So it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that some people start losing their visas. We don't know whether Abramovich is one of those, but based on "when there's smoke, there's fire," there's good reason to suspect that he may be one of the people in this category. 

Photo credit: EPA-EFE/JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BOTT

The UK government warned that they might also use anti-money-laundering legislation to go after Russian business in the United Kingdom. Talks have been going on for the last few years, but what's new? What can we expect? And what is changing in the United Kingdom after the possible poisoning of [ex-Russian intelligence officer Sergei] Skripal? Maybe this is an opportunity to introduce a Magnitsky Act in the United Kingdom?

I'm proud to say that after eight years of advocacy, two weeks ago the House of Commons unanimously passed the Magnitsky Act here in the UK. Yesterday it was debated in the House of Lords and supported in the House of Lords. And so we're moments away from having a UK Magnitsky Act. The UK will fully join Canada, the US, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Gibraltar in having a Magnitsky Act. It's particularly relevant here in the UK because this is where every self-respecting Russian gangster, Russian corrupt official, Russian oligarch has a home, sends their kids to school and has an ambition, if all goes wrong in Russia, to get away to. London is just starting to understand it. The British government has huge leverage here based on the attractiveness of London as the destination of choice. 

What are the chances the Magnitsky Act will pass? And if it does work, what would the consequences be for the possibilities for Russian business in the UK? How would it affect the UK's influence on what's going on in Russia regarding the protection of human rights and their fight with corruption?

Photo credit: The Aspen Institute

I think this is going to send shivers down the spines of Putin regime officials, who are involved in terrible human rights abuses. There's a lot of people who have been involved in these human rights abuses, there's a lot of people who financially benefited from these human rights abuses. We've seen in the Magnitsky case that a lot of money came to London, and I think that a lot of people are going to be panicking and wondering if they're safe, if their property is safe, if they'll be able to travel here. And I think that will very much upset these people. You can't imagine the arrogance of the people connected to Vladimir Putin. They thought they could do everything and anything, and they thought that everybody was bribable, and they thought every place was corrupt and they could just keep their money safely abroad. All of a sudden, these enormously wealthy, enormously arrogant people are finding that, no, the civilized world is going to start closing down on them. And that's going to happen here, for sure. 

Since you are an advocate for that, what are the next steps? What should we follow in this case to understand what is going on? What other sanctions besides the Magnitsky Act could be imposed? Is this being discussed? 

The main next step on the Magnitsky Act is that, first, the act has to be finally voted on in the House of Lords. Then it has to be given what is called "Royal Assent" – it means the Queen basically puts her blessing on it – and then it becomes law. (Editorial note: the Magnitsky Act has been published since the time of publication and has now become a law.) And then, it only becomes possible, I believe, in the next year, or possibly in 2020, for the UK to independently sanction people outside of the European Union context. This is an issue that we have to explore carefully. But in the meantime, we're going to try and get the first Magnitsky list put together, which will hopefully be an EU Magnitsky list initiated by Britain, which will replicate the same Magnitsky list, which took place in the United States and Canada. In terms of other tools that the British government can use against crooked Russian businessmen, oligarchs and officials, there's another very valuable legal tool, which became law a year ago, called the "unexplained wealth orders." The "unexplained wealth orders" basically says: if you have a lot of money and you appear to be crooked, then you then have to explain to the UK authorities why the money you have is honest. In other words, it reverses the burden of proof. Normally, in the past, the government had to prove that it was dishonest, which is very hard to do. But now, you have to say: this money is honest, here are the receipts, here are the contracts, here's the information. And this puts a lot of corrupt Russians in a very awkward position because, of course, they can't prove that their money is honest.

We’ve been talking about the Magnitsky Act for a couple of years, but could you please remind our audience what kinds of people could be added to list? What kinds of activities warrant a place on that list? Is it just corruption or any human rights abuses? Is it limited to Russian citizens or open to citizens of other countries?

The Magnitsky Act that was passed here is similar to the Canadian Magnitsky Act and the global Magnitsky Act in America. It doesn't just apply to Russians; it applies to bad, corrupt human rights violators from anywhere in the world, although it is named after Sergei Magnitsky because of the sacrifice that he made. Basically, it applies to people involved in gross human rights abuses and to people involved in kleptocracy. It's an extremely powerful tool, it's a broad tool, and those people who didn't get their money honestly should be worried. 

It's been two weeks since one of the Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, [filmmaker] Oleg Sentsov, went on hunger strike. He's been in Russian Siberian prisons for four years already. As somebody who has fought for justice for Sergei Magnitsky, who was in a Russian prison but unfortunately passed away, what would you say? When we talk to the government here, they say that everything that is possible has been done. Are there other things that could be done to pressure the Kremlin to free these political prisoners? And to what extent could the Magnitsky Act be a tool for doing this?

First of all, let me say that what's happened to Oleg Sentsov is an absolutely horrific travesty of justice. This man shouldn't be in jail, his life shouldn't be at risk, and those people who put him in jail, and put his life at risk in the Russian Federation should face the harshest possible consequences, including being added to the Magnitsky list. It's an obvious, clear abuse and a case that warrants the highest attention. As far as the Ukrainian government is concerned, they're not being truthful. The Ukrainian government has an opportunity, right now, to adopt the Magnitsky Act. The Magnitsky Act is going through the Ukrainian parliament; it's stuck in the Ukrainian parliament. The government could, at any moment, start to use the Magnitsky sanctions process even before the Magnitsky law goes through the Ukrainian parliament to sanction people involved in human rights abuses. The Ukrainian parliament, or the Ukrainian government, should do that as a matter of urgency against those people involved in the false arrest and persecution of Oleg Sentsov. 

Photo credit: The Aspen Institute

Let's go into detail. When we started communicating with government representatives, we wanted them to say what exactly they could do, how the procedure works. Their general response is that, yes, they should do it, but it ends with them saying that they will look into it. What are the exact steps that various officials could take to pressure Russia using the Magnitsky Act?

Basically, it's very straightforward. Who are the prosecutors, who are the investigators and who are the judges who have illegally taken Oleg Sentsov hostage and persecuted him over the last four years? Their names are on documents, there's no mystery as to who these people are. Those people should be immediately named and banned from entering into Ukraine, and if they have any assets in Ukraine, those assets should be frozen. If there are any legal issues about doing that, then the Ukrainian government should immediately take over the legislation, the Magnitsky legislation in Ukraine, and push it through as a government initiative, instead of as a parliamentary initiative, and put it in place. The Ukrainian government has not done all that they could for Oleg Sentsov. This is something they could do, this is something they should do for Oleg Sentsov. This is something they should do to the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky and other victims. 

And how does it work with the United States and Canada? Human rights lawyers may listen to this interview and consider some of these actions, since pressure from the Ukrainian side toward the Russian Federation could be seen as less efficient. Maybe those people are more concerned about not traveling to the United States or Canada.

First of all, I would say that Ukraine is in no position to demand that the United States bans them from travelling if Ukraine still allows them to travel. So the first thing that Ukraine should do is put its money where its mouth is. As far as the United States is concerned, absolutely -- the family members, and advocates, and lawyers of Oleg Sentsov should immediately travel to Washington. They should submit documents to the State Department and the Treasury Department of the names of the people in the [Russian] investigator's office, in the prosecutor's office and in the court who have been involved in Oleg Sentsov's persecution. The US requires those real documents, those documents are easily provided, and those documents should make a very plausible and credible case that those people should be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act.

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum is starting this week. The Russian media are saying there will be thousands of visitors from abroad, but there are some warnings to foreign investors traveling to Russia. To what extent would the UK like to get back to “business as usual”? We’ve been hearing mixed messages – some say that they want business to return to normal, to trade and cooperate with Russia, for the sanctions to be removed. Does this sentiment really exist? And what would you say to potential investors?

First of all, it's complete nonsense. If you look at the amount of foreign direct investment in Russia, it's dropped by 95% since the invasion of Crimea. It's just not true that there's huge demand from foreign investors. The second thing that I would say is that any foreign investor who has done any homework at all would understand that there's a very high probability of you losing your money, of having people working for you being arrested and potentially getting killed. No normal foreign investor would take those risks. I don't know who these thousands of people are, but they're not the mainstream of the world, and they don't make up a large quantity of investment from abroad into Russia.   

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk