Before getting down to brass tacks, let me say that I loathe penning articles like this; loathe writing about myself or in the first person, because a reporter should report the news, not be the news. Yet I grudgingly make this exception because, ironically, it happens to be newsworthy. To cut to the chase, it concerns Anglo-American financier Bill Browder and the Sergei Magnitsky affair. I, like others in the news business I’d venture to guess, feel led astray by Browder.
This is no excuse. I didn’t do my due diligence, and take full responsibility for erroneous information printed under my name. For that, I apologize to readers. I refer to two articles of mine published in a Cypriot publication, dated December 25, 2015 and January 6, 2016.
Browder’s basic story, as he has told it time and again, goes like this: in June 2007, Russian police officers raided the Moscow offices of Browder’s firm Hermitage, confiscating company seals, certificates of incorporation, and computers.
Browder says the owners and directors of Hermitage-owned companies were subsequently changed, using these seized documents. Corrupt courts were used to create fake debts for these companies, which allowed for the taxes they had previously paid to the Russian Treasury to be refunded to what were now re-registered companies. The funds stolen from the Russian state were then laundered through banks and shell companies.
The scheme is said to have been planned earlier in Cyprus by Russian law enforcement and tax officials in cahoots with criminal elements.
All this was supposedly discovered by Magnitsky, whom Browder had tasked with investigating what happened. When Magnitsky reported the fraud, some of the nefarious characters involved had him arrested and jailed. He refused to retract, and died while in pre-trial detention.
In my first article, I wrote: “Magnitsky, a 37-year-old Russian accountant, died in jail in 2009 after he exposed huge tax embezzlement…”
False. Contrary to the above story that has been rehashed countless times, Magnitsky did not expose any tax fraud, did not blow the whistle.
The interrogation reports show that Magnitsky had in fact been summoned by Russian authorities as a witness to an already ongoing investigation into Hermitage. Nor he did he accuse Russian investigators Karpov and/or Kuznetsov of committing the $230 million treasury fraud, as Browder claims.
Magnitsky did not disclose the theft. He first mentioned it in testimony in October 2008. But it had already been reported in the New York Times on July 24, 2008.
In reality, the whistleblower was a certain Rimma Starova. She worked for one of the implicated shell companies and, having read in the papers that authorities were investigating, went to police to give testimony in April 2008 – six months before Magnitsky spoke of the scam for the first time (see here and here).
Why, then, did I report that about Magnitsky? Because at the time my sole source for the story was Team Browder, who had reached out to the Cyprus Mail and with whom I communicated via email. I was provided with ‘information’, flow charts and so on. All looking very professional and compelling.
At the time of the first article, I knew next to nothing about the Magnitsky/Browder affair. I had to go through media reports to get the gist, and then get up to speed with Browder’s latest claims that a Cypriot law firm, which counted the Hermitage Fund among its clients, had just been ‘raided’ by Cypriot police.
The article had to be written and delivered on the same day. In retrospect I should have asked for more time – a lot more time – and Devil take the deadlines.
For the second article, I conversed briefly on the phone with the soft-spoken Browder himself, who handed down the gospel on the Magnitsky affair. Under the time constraints, and trusting that my sources could at least be relied upon for basic information which they presented as facts, I went along with it.
I was played. But let’s be clear: I let myself down too.
In the ensuing weeks and months, I didn’t follow up on the story as my gut told me something was wrong: villains and malign actors operating in a Wild West Russia, and at the centre of it all, a heroic Magnitsky who paid with his life – the kind of script that Hollywood execs would kill for.
Subsequently I mentally filed away the Browder story, while being aware it was in the news.
But the real red pill was a documentary by Russian filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov, which came to my attention a few weeks ago.
Titled ‘The Magnitsky Act – Behind The Scenes’, it does a magisterial job of depicting how the director initially took Browder’s story on faith, only to end up questioning everything.
The docudrama dissects, disassembles and dismantles Browder’s narrative, as Nekrasov – by no means a Putin apologist – delves deeper down into the rabbit hole.
The director had set out to make a poignant film about Magnitsky’s tragedy, but became increasingly troubled as the facts he uncovered didn’t stack up with Browder’s account, he claims.
The ‘aha’ moment arrives when Nekrasov appears to show solid proof that Magnitsky blew no whistle.
Not only that, but in his depositions – the first one dating to 2006, well before Hermitage’s offices were raided – Magnitsky did not accuse any police officers of being part of the ‘theft’ of Browder’s companies and the subsequent alleged $230m tax rebate fraud.
The point can’t be stressed enough, as this very claim is the lynchpin of Browder’s account. In his bestseller Red Notice, Browder alleges that Magnitsky was arrested because he exposed two corrupt police officers, and that he was jailed and tortured because he wouldn’t retract.
We are meant to take Browder’s word for it.
It gets worse for Nekrasov, as he goes on to discover that Magnitsky was no lawyer. He did not have a lawyer’s license. Rather, he was an accountant/auditor who worked for Moscow law firm Firestone Duncan.
Yet every chance he gets, Browder still refers to Magnitsky as ‘a lawyer’ or ‘my lawyer’.
The clincher comes late in the film, with footage from Browder’s April 15, 2015 deposition in a US federal court, in the Prevezon case. The case, brought by the US Justice Department at Browder’s instigation, targeted a Russian national who Browder said had received $1.9m of the $230m tax fraud.
In the deposition, Browder is asked if Magnitsky had a law degree in Russia. “I’m not aware that he did,” he replies.
The full deposition, some six hours long, is (still) available on Youtube. As penance for past transgressions, I watched it in its entirety. While refraining from using adjectives to describe it, I shall simply cite some examples and let readers decide on Browder’s credibility.
Browder seems to suffer an almost total memory blackout as a lawyer begins firing questions at him. He cannot recall, or does not know, where he or his team got the information concerning the alleged illicit transfer of funds from Hermitage-owned companies.
This is despite the fact that the now-famous Powerpoint presentations – hosted on so many ‘anti-corruption’ websites and recited by ‘human rights’ NGOs – were prepared by Browder’s own team.
Nor does he recall where, or how, he and his team obtained information on the amounts of the ‘stolen’ funds funnelled into companies. When it’s pointed out that in any case this information would be privileged – banking secrecy and so forth – Browder appears to be at a loss.
According to Team Browder, in 2007 the ‘Klyuev gang’ together with Russian interior ministry officials travelled to Cyprus, ostensibly to set up the tax rebate scam using shell companies.
But in his deposition, the Anglo-American businessman cannot remember, or does not know, how his team obtained the travel information of the conspirators.
He can’t explain how they acquired the flight records and dates, doesn’t have any documentation at hand, and isn’t aware if any such documentation exists.
Browder claims his ‘Justice for Magnitsky’ campaign, which among other things has led to US sanctions on Russian persons, is all about vindicating the young man. Were that true, one would have expected Browder to go out of his way to aid Magnitsky in his hour of need.
The deposition does not bear that out.
Lawyer: “Did anyone coordinate on your behalf with Firestone Duncan about the defence of Mr Magnitsky?”
Browder: “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Going back to Nekrasov’s film, a standout segment is where the filmmaker looks at a briefing document prepared by Team Browder concerning the June 2007 raid by Russian police officers. In it, Browder claims the cops beat up Victor Poryugin, a lawyer with the firm.
The lawyer was then “hospitalized for two weeks,” according to Browder’s presentation, which includes a photo of the beaten-up lawyer. Except, it turns out the man pictured is not Poryugin at all. Rather, the photo is actually of Jim Zwerg, an American human rights activist beaten up during a street protest in 1961 (see here and here).
Nekrasov sits down with German politician Marieluise Beck. She was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace), which compiled a report that made Magnitsky a cause celebre.
You can see Beck’s jaw drop when Nekrasov informs her that Magnitsky did not report the fraud, that he was in fact under investigation.
It transpires that Pace, as well as human rights activists, were getting their information from one source – Browder. Later, the Council of Europe’s Andreas Gross admits on camera that their entire investigation into the Magnitsky affair was based on Browder’s info and that they relied on translations of Russian documents provided by Browder’s team because, as Gross puts it, “I don’t speak Russian myself.”
That hit home – I, too, had been fed information from a single source, not bothering to verify it. I, too, initially went with the assumption that because Russia is said to be a land of endemic corruption, then Browder’s story sounded plausible if not entirely credible.
For me, the takeaway is this gem from Nekrasov’s narration:
“I was regularly overcome by deep unease. Was I defending a system that killed Magnitsky, even if I’d found no proof that he’d been murdered?”
Bull’s-eye. Nekrasov has arrived at a crossroads, the moment where one’s mettle is tested: do I pursue the facts wherever they may lead, even if they take me out of my comfort zone? What is more important: the truth, or the narrative? Nekrasov chose the former. As do I.
Like with everything else, specific allegations must be assessed independently of one’s general opinion of the Russian state. They are two distinct issues. Say Browder never existed; does that make Russia a paradise?
I suspect Team Browder may scrub me from their mailing list; one can live with that.