British Kremlin critic Bill Browder: 'I will not be stopped in my mission to have Russia's corrupt wealth seized'

‘The moment I arrived at the police station I knew I was OK,’ he tells The Independent. ‘My concern was that these guys were just dressed up as cops, and I would be taken to an airstrip somewhere and loaded on to a G7 to Russia’

Tom Peck
Friday 01 June 2018 19:23
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Bill Browder: 'I am definitely at risk'

Once Bill Browder was confident it really was the police who had arrested him, he knew everything was going to be fine.

His initial fear, once he got in the back of a police car in Madrid on Wednesday morning, was that they weren’t police at all, but Russian kidnappers.

“The moment I arrived at the police station I knew I was OK,” Mr Browder told The Independent. “My concern was that these guys were just dressed up as cops, and I would be taken to an airstrip somewhere and loaded on to a G7 to Russia.”

The Spanish policemen had explained the reasons for his arrest to him in two words: “Interpol, Russia.”

That Mr Browder is wanted in Russia is no secret. That Spanish authorities should have acted on Russia’s request for his extradition, if only for an hour or so, is startling.

Mr Browder, an American-born British businessman, describes himself as Vladimir Putin’s number one enemy, and not without good reason. While running an investment fund in Russia at the turn of the millennium, he uncovered what he calls serious corruption at various state backed commodities firms that were central to the explosion of corrupt personal wealth that created Russia’s oligarch class.

In 2009, after Mr Browder had been banned from travelling to Russia and described as a “threat to national security”, his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was detained, and eventually died in police custody. He is alleged to have been tortured.

He has since dedicated his life to convincing Western countries to pass “Magnitsky Acts”, named in honour of his lawyer, to prevent corrupt Russian officials stashing their wealth in foreign countries.

The US Magnitsky Act was passed by Barack Obama in 2012. Last week, the “Magnitsky amendment” in the UK’s Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act received royal assent.

“There is a high correlation between getting Magnitsky Acts passed in different countries and Russia going to Interpol to get me arrested,” he said.

“In 2012, after the US passed the Magnitsky Act, Russia issued an Interpol alert. Last week the queen signed the Magnitsky amendments in the UK and then this happened.”

After Spanish police knocked on his hotel room door, Mr Browder was able to send two tweets which said he had been arrested in Spain. It took the Interpol secretary general, Jurgen Stock, about an hour to inform Spanish authorities they should have ignored the Russian arrest warrant and Mr Browder was released.

“It does raise the question of why Spain seemed to go along with Russia’s request,” Mr Browder said.

“They say, ‘Well we got an Interpol alert. But if you go on the Interpol system, it specifically says to ignore any Russian requests to arrest me. But they did it anyway.”

In the fight against Russian corruption, Mr Browder describes Spain as “a very sensitive place”.

“It has been very humiliating for the Russians, Spain. This prosecutor there, Jose Grinda, has just finished prosecuting lots of bad guys from Russia, including state officials.”

Mr Browder is still actively involved in the hunt for $230m, the money that vanished in the original corruption more than a decade ago. Mr Browder believes $30m has been hidden through Spanish property purchases. It was to meet Mr Grinda that Mr Browder had travelled to Madrid.

“I only travel to countries with a robust rule of law. Most countries I’ve been able to travel to without any issue whatsoever. I was in the Netherlands last week, testifying at the Dutch parliament and there was no trouble.

“I was in Belgium on Tuesday working on the Magnitsky laws there, and there was no trouble.

“In Spain, once I was clear I wasn’t being kidnapped I wasn’t nervous. I saw a 0 per cent chance of me being extradited. But there are a lot of countries that don’t have a robust and independent rule of law.

“We have now made a number of formal requests to the Spanish authorities to find out who is responsible and then we’ll take a view on what happened.”

Next week Mr Browder will be in Denmark, again pursuing Magnitsky laws. “The parliamentarian who invited me has written to the Danish justice minister to guarantee me safe passage,” he said.

Mr Browder believes that Mr Putin is the richest man in the world, and has an estimated $200bn kept in foreign accounts and assets for him by associates abroad.

The Magnitsky laws, he said, threaten to take away Mr Putin and his cronies’ wealth “in a puff of smoke”.

“It’s potentially terrifying for him,” he said. “And because of that I became his single most hated foreigner, for sure. When they hate somebody they have lots of different tools by which they go after that person.

“I have been threatened with death. I have been threatened with kidnapping. I have been threatened with Interpol arrest warrants. They’ve come to the British government to try and have me extradited. They have sued me in multiple courts throughout the world. They surveil me. They have made movies about me. The purpose of all this is that one way or another, they want to destroy me.”

Mr Browder said he believes that England, the US and others should not be participating in the Russian World Cup, which will “only legitimise Putin”.

“Just purely on the basis of sports fairness, after the state sponsored doping programme, there should be no participation in the World Cup. But because of all their other rogue acts, invading Ukraine, shooting down MH17, cheating in the Olympics, cheating the US elections, poisoning Litvinenko and poisoning Skripal – that is enough to say, ‘We shouldn’t be participating in this.’”

The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter was, he said, an act of domestic, rather than foreign policy.

“They probably had a list of 30 disloyal people that they could have done this to, and they chose the one they thought was the softest target. The message was this: ‘We’re going to kill this guy. Kill his family. And let everyone know we did it. And hopefully in a situation where it can never be proven. So we can wink at everyone and say, ‘We did it’, and not have to bear the responsibility of it ever being proven,” he said.

“It tells people: even if you go to London, you never leave our orbit. You are never safe, even living in a cathedral town in Salisbury. We’re going to get you, we’re going to liquidate you and your family and there’s nothing you can do about it. You are totally within my grip.”

It is why, in his view, the only effective response to the growing threat of Russia is with financial sanctions. He describes doing so as his “mission”.

“I am not going to stop that mission,” he said. “It’s too important.”

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