For much of his life, Bill Browder’s goal was simple: to be the most successful capitalist in Eastern Europe. And he reached his goal there and in Russia. He made fortunes and lost them and then made them again. But that all changed in 2009 when his lawyer and friend, Sergei Magnitsky, died in prison under suspicious circumstances one month after submitting detailed documentation of a governmental scandal to Russian investigators. The year before, Magnitsky had exposed a complicated $230 million web of tax-refund fraud and graft involving Russian government officials. And for his courageous efforts, he lost his life.
“Sergei was murdered because he was my lawyer. If he hadn’t worked for me, he would still be alive today,” Browder told attendees during the Tuesday afternoon general session. He said for the last nine years he’s devoted his life to seeking justice for Magnitsky.
In the 1990s, Browder took advantage of Russia’s business privatization program after the Soviet breakup to make millions for an investment firm and then later for his own firm, Hermitage Capital Management. But then he lost $900 million in 1998 during the Russian stock market crash. He resolved to stay in Russia to recoup the money for his clients.
Browder said his recovery efforts were hindered by the owners of the companies in which he invested — Russian oligarchs. “They’re not nice people,” he said. “They had every instinct in their bodies to steal.” When he and his firm discovered that the oligarchs were siphoning the profits, Browder decided he’d investigate how they were doing it.
Browder then hired Magnitsky, who discovered how the oligarchs used fake contracts and court judgments to fraudulently obtain $230 million of Hermitage capital gain tax payments.
They reported the fraud to the Russian authorities and waited for “the good guys to get the bad guys. … But in Putin’s Russia, there are no good guys,” Browder said. “Five weeks after Sergei testified [to the Russian version of the FBI], the same police officers he testified against came to his home at 8 in the morning on the 24th of November in 2008, arrested him, put him in pre-trial detention and tortured him to withdraw his testimony … and say he stole the $230 million.
“Sergei was a man of incredible principle and integrity. And the idea of perjuring himself and bearing false witness was worse than the physical pain they were inflicting on him,” Browder said. “He refused to sign their false confession.”
After six months, Magnitsky became ill with pancreatitis and gallstones. Prison workers withheld medical treatment, agents beat him and he died in prison on November 16, 2009. “He was 37 years old and left a wife and two children,” Browder said.
“I got news of his murder the next morning, and it was the most traumatic, life-changing, heartbreaking news I could have ever gotten. … I made a vow to his memory, to his family and myself that I was going to put aside everything I was doing and devote all of my time, all of my resources and all of my energy to get justice for Sergei Magnitsky. … Russia torturers and murderers shouldn’t come to America.”
Browder has conducted a global campaign to impose visa bans and asset freezes on individual human rights abusers — particularly those who played a role in Magnitsky’s false arrest, torture and death. The 2012 Magnitsky Act, was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Five additional countries have passed their own versions of the act. The 2016 U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act expanded the original Magnitsky Act.
“Bad guys do a lot of stuff … for money,” Browder said. “The idea that we can freeze their assets is a real consequence. They kill for money … and I believe some of them won’t kill because they don’t want to be put on a Magnitsky list.”