This past summer, William Browder had an epiphany. Writing in the Financial Times, he revealed it:
Russia is not a “state” as we understand it. Government institutions have been taken over as conduits for private interests, some of them criminal. Foreign investors get ripped off all the time in many countries. What makes this story unique is the state officials working together to steal $230m from the Russian state itself. The sharks have started to feed on their own blood.
From 1996 to 2005, Browder’s firm Hermitage Capital controlled a $4 billion foreign investment portfolio in Russia, the largest in the world. He was one of Vladimir Putin’s most enthusiastic boosters, calling him Hermitage’s “biggest ally” in expanding foreign investment. He proudly touted his family connections to Russia. (His grandfather Earl, a leading figure in the Communist Party USA., had lived in Russia in the 1920s and taken a Russian bride.) William repudiated his American citizenship and became a British subject. He declared: “I had a lot of my family in me, and tried to find a way of connecting my past to my future.”
Then Browder made a literally fatal error. He started speaking out about the negative consequences for his investors of Russia’s horrific social and political corruption. The most recent survey by Transparency International found that of 180 world nations studied, only 31 were more corrupt than Putin’s Russia. Uninterested in reform, the Kremlin turned on him. In November 2005, Browder’s Russian visa was revoked.
When he still did not pipe down, in June 2007 his company’s offices in Moscow were raided by the state, and his attorney Sergei Magnitsky was arrested. Soon, Browder himself was the target of a criminal probe, just as Mikhail Khodorkovsky had become when he tried to challenge pandemic Russian corruption.
The pattern of prosecuting lawyers had held for Khodorkovsky as well, when the Kremlin jailed his lead counsel Svetlana Bakhmina. Likewise, Mikhail Trepashkin, the lawyer who represented the committee of human rights activists that was investigating the Moscow apartment bombings used as a pretext for Putin’s invasion of Chechnya soon after he took power, was jailed. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, lawyers — like journalists — are an endangered species.
A few days ago, Magnitsky died in Kremlin custody. It’s believed that the Kremlin was pressuring him to give evidence against Browder, and was using torture in the form of withheld medical treatment. Voice of America reported:
Magnitsky developed problems with his pancreas and gall bladder as a result of what his American business associate, Jamison Firestone, described to VOA as filthy prison conditions. They included a tiny cell with two other people, no hot water, a shower once a week, and a kitchen above a hole in the floor that served as a toilet.