Putin Murders Another Lawyer

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 In November 2005, Browder's Russian visa was revoked.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.

Magnitsky is not the first attorney to lay down his life struggling against the neo-Soviet Kremlin. In January of this year, Stanislav Markelov, who crusaded for justice in Chechnya, was shot down on the streets of Moscow. The Kremlin has been repeatedly tried and convicted for state-sponsored murder and torture in Chechnya by the European Court for Human Rights.

Which brings us back to William Browder, who has very successfully, in his own words, connected his past to his future. According to Wikipedia:

In March 1950, Earl Browder shared a platform with Max Schactman, the dissident Trotskyist, in which the pair debated socialism. Browder defended the Soviet Union while Shachtman acted as a prosecutor. It is reported that at one point in the debate Shachtman listed a series of leaders of various Communist Parties and noted that each had perished at the hands of Stalin; at the end of this speech, he remarked that Browder too had been a leader of a Communist Party and, pointing at him, announced: "There-there but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!"

Earl’s grandson has been just as lucky; it could have been him in that jail cell instead of Magnitsky, writhing in agony as his body was eaten up by disease while his Kremlin jailers chuckled mirthfully.

And maybe it should have been. Seeking personal profit, for a full decade William Browder helped legitimize the Putin dictatorship, giving the KGB strongman welcome cover as he consolidated his malignant rule. To this day, Browder has never apologized for doing so. He lured billions of dollars in foreign investment into a sinkhole, and he has not apologized to his investors either.

In a very real sense, Browder is even worse than the likes of Bernard Madoff, whose activity was limited to graft. Madoff at least cannot be blamed for helping to undermine the institution of democracy and return a malignant force like the KGB to power.

But Browder can be. It’s a pity he didn’t realize sooner that Putin was a “shark” out to drink his own country’s blood, including that of Sergei Magnitsky. Had he, Magnitsky might still be alive today. Now, the only good that can come of William Browder is if, by his example, the world finally realizes the horror it confronts in neo-Soviet Russia.