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How Sergei Magnitsky paid with his life for exposing Vladimir Putin’s financial corruption

A new book by Bill Browder reveals the bravery of a young lawyer who uncovered a £185m state-sponsored tax fraud.

By Katie Stallard

When a young Moscow lawyer uncovered the theft of £185m from the Russian treasury in 2008, he was confident that justice would be done. Sergei Magnitsky had pieced together how corrupt interior ministry officials had faked a claim for a huge tax refund – the largest in Russia’s history – using documents and materials they had stolen from Hermitage Capital, the investment fund where he worked. But instead of the perpetrators being arrested, the very same officials were placed in charge of the investigation and began summoning his colleagues for questioning.

“Two of our lawyers quickly fled Russia for London under cover of night,” writes Hermitage founder and CEO Bill Browder in his new book Freezing Order. But Magnitsky decided to stay. “We begged him to leave as well, but he wouldn’t. He believed Russia was changing for the better and that the rule of law would ultimately protect him.”

Magnitsky was arrested and interrogated. He was held in the notorious Butyrka pre-trial detention centre for almost a year, where he described raw sewage flooding the floor of his cell and said he was repeatedly pressured to withdraw his allegations. But he refused. After 358 days in detention, having lost 40 pounds in weight and become seriously ill, Magnitsky died in custody in November 2009. He was 37 years old. I met his mother when I was a reporter based in Moscow. She showed me photos of the deep cuts to her son’s wrists and the bruises that they had found on his body that were consistent with him being severely beaten during his final hours while wearing handcuffs. Four years after his death, Magnitsky was tried and posthumously convicted of the tax fraud he had uncovered, along with Browder, who was convicted in absentia.

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Freezing Order is the second of two books Browder has written about Magnitsky’s death and his more than decade-long campaign since to hold those responsible to account. His best-selling first book Red Notice ended with the US Congress passing the Magnitsky Act in 2012, which gives authorities the power to freeze assets and impose travel bans on individuals accused of serious human rights violations, including the officials allegedly responsible for Magnitsky’s death.

But the sequel also details the legal challenges and threats Browder and his team have faced as the Russian government and its associates have pushed back against the legislation and tried to intimidate them. Browder recounts how he was arrested in Madrid on a Russian Interpol warrant (later dismissed by the Spanish authorities) and was warned in London about a plot to kidnap him and take him to Moscow.

In 2018, Browder watched in horror as Vladimir Putin suggested to Donald Trump at a press conference in Helsinki that he would be prepared to trade Browder for a number of Russian intelligence operatives, which Trump declared an “incredible offer” (the proposal was later dropped). Other figures depicted in the book have met much more serious fates. The Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who supported Browder’s campaign to pass the Magnitsky Act, was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015. His close friend Vladimir Kara-Murza has survived being poisoned twice and at the time of writing is imprisoned in Moscow.

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Browder has his critics, who note his penchant for putting himself at the heart of the story, but he has campaigned relentlessly, at great personal risk, to ensure that Magnitsky’s name is not forgotten and to expose the corruption and violence that have always been at the core of Putin’s regime. He was calling for action to target illicit Russian money and assets in the West long before Russia invaded Ukraine. Fast paced and engaging, Browder’s book reads like a spy novel, but it also makes a powerful and remarkably prescient case for the need to use all the legal and financial tools available to separate Putin’s financiers from their foreign-held bank accounts and luxury yachts.

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“I can’t bring Sergei back,” writes Browder. “But his sacrifice has not been meaningless. It has saved, and will continue to save, many, many lives.” In the 13 years since his agonising death, 34 countries including the UK, US, Australia, and Canada have adopted their own version of the Magnitsky Act, which has been used to sanction hundreds of individuals from multiple countries for human rights violations. It is not justice, but it is, perhaps, a fitting legacy for a man who believed above all in the rule of law.

Freezing Order
Bill Browder
Simon & Schuster, 336pp, £20

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato