Putin Critic Says He's Afraid The Kremlin Would 'Wipe Me Out One Way Or Another'

Oct 24, 2017
Originally published on October 25, 2017 12:49 am

Bill Browder, a top critic of Vladimir Putin who has been trying to expose corruption in Russia, says he does not feel safe knowing the Kremlin has issued an international arrest warrant for him via Interpol.

"It's all very scary," Browder tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "It's not just arrest. They could try to assassinate me on the street. They've made these threats, and so I am genuinely Putin's No. 1 foreign enemy, and they'd like to wipe me out one way or another."

Sunday's warrant stems from the Kremlin's recent claim that Browder murdered his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after the two men uncovered a multi-million dollar corruption scheme.

His death led the American-born Browder, who's now a British citizen, on a worldwide quest to punish the Russian officials accused of torturing and killing him. Browder pushed the U.S. and other countries to pass what is now called the Magnitsky Act, which freezes American assets and bans visas for certain Russians.

"This infuriates Putin. He's just so mad," he says.

In retaliation to the U.S. sanctions, Russia limited U.S. adoptions of Russian children. Russia has also lobbied for repeal of the act, and it is that reason a Russian lawyer says she met with Donald Trump Jr. in 2016 at Trump Tower.

This murder charge, Browder says, is a "Kafka-esque" twist in the story. He says he was expelled from Russia more than a decade ago.

"It's just beyond belief — and it's so unbelievable and so outrageous that it shows that they're really getting rattled, that Putin is very, very upset by the consequences of the Magnitsky Act and how it affects his personal interests," he tells NPR.

On Monday, NPR reported that Browder was denied entry into the U.S. after the State Department revoked his visa, an issue that has since been resolved and he has been cleared to travel to the United States.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A top critic of Vladimir Putin has been accused of murder. Financier William Browder lives in London. American-born but now a British citizen, Browder was once the largest private foreign investor in Russia. He made a lot of money and in the process, uncovered Russia's web of corruption and fraud.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now after Browder and his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme, his lawyer, Magnitsky, was imprisoned and died in prison a year later under suspicious circumstances. In response, Browder pushed the United States to pass what is now called the Magnitsky Act, a law that punishes human rights abusers by freezing their American assets and banning them from the U.S.

MARTIN: Now, in a bizarre twist in this story, Russia is accusing Browder of murdering his lawyer. They issued an Interpol arrest warrant. And on Sunday, Browder said he was denied entry into the U.S. William Browder joins us now on the line from our studio at the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

WILLIAM BROWDER: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Before we get to the substance of the allegations against you, I just want to clear up the travel issue. Because of this warrant out for your arrest, you were denied entry into the U.S. Now that's been cleared up?

BROWDER: Yes, it has. So the Interpol warrant had been issued last week by Vladimir Putin. This was the fifth time he's come after me trying to use Interpol. And I discovered that I couldn't travel to the United States. I have a British passport, and my British visa was effectively cancelled at the airport when I tried to travel. And so it was kind of odd that some - that effectively, the U.S. at least either implicitly or explicitly was working with Vladimir Putin to going after one of their - chasing one of his political vendettas...

MARTIN: Although, as I understand it, it's kind of an automatic thing. If there's an Interpol arrest out for someone, then that's something that's automatically triggered. But now it's all been resolved for you at this point. Now you're turning your attention to the arrest warrant itself. So as I understand it as of right now, if you leave the U.K., you'll be arrested?

BROWDER: That's correct. So basically what happens with Interpol is that any country - there's 190 members - they can put a notice on their system for anybody they want. And then every other country in the world effectively has to arrest that person. So if I cross an international border anywhere, even, you know, a supposedly sort of good country, nobody - the guys at the border in their uniforms aren't looking at the substance of it. They're just saying there's an arrest warrant out for this guy. So I will be arrested if I cross a border.

MARTIN: So you are being charged by the Russian government for murder, for murdering your lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Why do you think Russian prosecutors are charging you with this now?

BROWDER: Well, so, I mean, it's a very long story, but basically, Sergei Magnitsky was arrested after he uncovered a $230 million government corruption scheme. He was imprisoned. He was tortured for 358 days, and he was killed nine years ago in Moscow in prison. I was expelled from Russia a number of years before that. And so I've been basically out of Russia for almost 12 years now. But what I've been doing is to try to get justice for the murder of Sergei Magnitsky. I've gone around the world, and I've gotten sanctions in place against Russia, against Putin's cronies. And they're named after...

MARTIN: And we should say - the Magnitsky Act. You talked about these sanctions. I mean, this is now U.S. law - that the U.S. put these sanctions in place in part because of your efforts.

BROWDER: Indeed. So I went first to the U.S., then I went to Britain. I went to various countries around the world, most recently Canada. And all of these countries have passed what's called the Magnitsky Act. And the Magnitsky Act imposes visa sanctions and asset freezes on the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky and the people who do similar types of human rights abuses in Russia. And this infuriates Putin. He's just so mad.

MARTIN: So people will also know this name because it came up. Donald Trump Jr. famously met in the summer of 2016 during the election with a lawyer, a Russian lawyer, who had been lobbying for the U.S. to rollback those sanctions, the Magnitsky Act, which we should say Russia then limited U.S. adoptions in retaliation. So this has been going on for a long time. You are now being charged with the murder, though, of someone whom you were actually very close with, right? Can you just say more about your personal relationship with Sergei Magnitsky?

BROWDER: Well, so Sergei was my lawyer, and most importantly, when he was put in this terrible position where they started to torture him to try to get him to withdraw his testimony against corrupt officials and they wanted him to sign a false confession to say that he stole the money and he did so on my instruction, and Sergei, in spite of all this torture, would refuse to perjure himself and refused to bear false witness. And the torture got worse and worse and worse. And what this whole situation showed was that this is a man of just true and incredible integrity and the face of what Russia should have been. But in the end, he was killed at the age of 37, leaving a wife and two children.

And it's the most Kafkaesque thing you could ever imagine that after I've spent eight years of my life fighting for justice for Sergei Magnitsky, going around the world, passing laws in his name, that the Putin regime has the unbelievable sort of nerve to then accuse me of murdering him. It's just - it's just beyond belief, and it's so unbelievable and so outrageous that it shows that they're really getting rattled, that Putin is very, very upset by the consequences of the Magnitsky Act and how it affects his personal interests.

MARTIN: I mean, you know - you know firsthand because of what happened to Sergei Magnitsky that vocal critics of Russia can suffer serious, sometimes deadly, consequences. How do you feel now? Do you feel safe?

BROWDER: Well, I definitely don't feel safe if Russia has an Interpol arrest warrant out for me and I'm apprehended somewhere and then Russia tries to extradite me back to Russia where they will then kill me in prison. And so it's all very scary. It's not just arrest. They could try to assassinate me on the street. They could kidnap me. They've made these threats. And so I am genuinely Putin's No. 1 foreign enemy. And they'd like to wipe me out one way or another.

MARTIN: You still feel like you need to talk, though.

BROWDER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, critic of the Kremlin, talking to us from our studios at the BBC in London. Mr. Browder, thanks so much for your time this morning.

BROWDER: Thank you.

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