Putin’s torturers: Blowing the whistle on government cronies who stole Russia’s riches

Mail on Sunday

The riches of the former Soviet Union seemed an incredible opportunity for financiers such as Bill Browder, and so it proved when he moved to the ‘Wild East’ and found he needed bodyguards and armoured cars.

But it was when he crossed the henchmen of Russian president Vladimir Putin that the trouble really started, and Browder was thrown into a terrifying world of state-sanctioned criminality. He survived, but his loyal colleague, Sergei Magnitsky, was to suffer an horrific fate at the hands of the Kremlin’s goons, as Browder recalls in this gripping first extract of his extraordinary new book…

The terrifying message arrived on my voicemail shortly after midnight on November 14, 2009. It had been a trying day. My lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was being held in a hellish Russian prison on trumped-up tax-evasion charges, and he had endured another tortuous day in court.

Sergei was seriously ill with pancreatitis and gallstones, but the police were unsympathetic and had chained him to a radiator in a corridor at the court building. When he finally entered the courtroom itself, the judge treated him with equal contempt, dismissing every one of his complaints about the mistreatment he’d endured for months.

I was a world away in London, but I was desperately worried. Another Russian lawyer of mine, who was safe with me in the UK, had recently received a series of menacing texts. ‘What’s worse, prison or death?’ one said. Another was a quote from The Godfather: ‘History has taught us that you can kill anyone.’

I’d shared these with officers from Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism unit, who traced the texts to an unregistered number in Russia. This was very disturbing. The only people with access to unregistered Russian numbers were the secret police, the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation), who’d been after me for years. The FSB doesn’t just issue arrest warrants and extradition requests – it dispatches assassins.

But the message I received late that November night was worse than any that had come before. When I listened to that voicemail, I heard a man in the midst of a savage beating. He was screaming and pleading. The recording lasted two minutes and cut off mid-wail. I called everyone I knew. They were all OK. The only person I couldn’t call was Sergei…
Before all these problems in Russia, I was the founder and chief executive of Hermitage Capital Management, the largest investment advisory firm in the Russian stock market. I had left a safe job in the City of London and relocated to Moscow in 1996, when Russia was nicknamed the Wild East.

I was successful almost immediately, but it’s difficult to be successful in Russia without making serious enemies – as I soon discovered.

One of my first big deals involved acquiring a block of an oil company controlled by oligarch Vladimir Potanin. My fund and my investors made more than $100million from this, but before I could celebrate, the oil company tried to illegally dilute our shareholdings and effectively steal $87million from us.

I wasn’t going to let this happen, so, perhaps foolishly, I took on Potanin. I contacted all his Western partners, publicised the details of the share dilution, and appealed to the Russian authorities.

During this time, I had armed bodyguards with me wherever I went, even watching me while I slept, and I was ferried everywhere in armoured cars. These were necessary precautions.

Despite the odds I won when the regulatory authorities cancelled the diluted share issue. After defeating Potanin I began to think that taking on Russian corruption wasn’t impossible after all. I started going after other companies, exposing wrongdoing at firms including Sberbank, Unified Energy Systems, and, most importantly, gas giant Gazprom.
It worked beautifully for a while. By 2005 the fund had $4.5billion (£3 billion) in assets and was the largest investment fund in Russia.

The job didn’t just have material benefits. By exposing corruption I was genuinely helping to make Russia a better place. There are very few jobs where one can make money and do good, and I was lucky enough to have one of them. It seemed too good to be true. And it was.

The reason it worked for a while was because I’d found an accidental ally in none other than Vladimir Putin. As he tried to establish his presidency in 2000, the oligarchs were stealing power from him at the same time that they were stealing money from me. This meant that every time I confronted an oligarch, Putin had an interest in stepping in to weaken our common enemy.

But as Putin’s power grew, this confluence of interests didn’t last. In 2003, he went after Russia’s biggest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for posing a political challenge. He put Khodorkovsky on trial and had him sentenced to nine years in prison. After this, the oligarchs started lining up at Putin’s door to pledge their allegiance. From this moment on our interests were no longer aligned. In 2005, I was expelled from Russia and declared a threat to national security.

Over the next few months I tried to get my Russian visa reinstated but it was hopeless. Once it became obvious I would never go back, I moved my key people and clients’ money out and got to work setting up a new fund in London.

In January 2007, I was working on raising capital for my new venture and took my pitch to the World Economic Forum in Davos. At one meeting, an old client asked if I was going to a dinner with the Russian contingent later in the week. I pointed out that I probably wouldn’t be welcome, but the client told me that all I had to do was sign up, so I did just that. A couple of nights later my wife and I attended the dinner and sat through uninspired speeches by grey Russian politicians.

By the time dessert was served, I noticed Dmitry Medvedev, the presumed next president of Russia, sitting at a table and not talking to any of his neighbours. My wife tugged my jacket and whispered: ‘Why don’t you ask Medvedev to help with your visa?’ I gave her a sideways glance. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I replied.

But she was insistent. ‘Seriously, look,’ she said. ‘No one’s talking to him. Let’s just do it.’

She stood and stared at me intently. Defying my wife was more frightening than having an unpleasant encounter with Medvedev, so I reluctantly followed her across the room. When we reached Medvedev, I stuck out my hand and said: ‘Hello, Mr Deputy Prime Minister. I haven’t been allowed into Russia for more than a year. I was wondering if you could help me get my visa back?’

He paused. Reporters were suddenly pressing in on us. He smiled and said: ‘Gladly, Mr Browder. If you give me a copy of your visa application, then I’ll submit it to the Federal Border Service with my recommendation to approve it.’
After that I thought I had a chance of restoring my visa. But instead, on February 19, 2007, my office got a call from Lieutenant Colonel Artem Kuznetsov, of the Russian Interior Ministry. He spoke with a colleague and informed him that depending on how he behaved and what he provided would determine whether I got a new visa. I viewed this as a clear-cut shakedown and ignored it.

I heard nothing more out of Russia for months. But on June 4, Kuznetsov and 24 plainclothes policemen raided my Moscow office and that of my lawyers. They were looking for the stamps, seals, and certificates of our investment holding companies in Russia. When one of the lawyers pointed out that the warrant was invalid, he was beaten.

During the raids, the police seized documents that were ultimately used to commit a $230million (£153million) tax rebate fraud. It was the largest tax fraud in Russian history, and it was received, processed and paid out in a single day – Christmas Eve, 2007.

In my opinion, President Putin had authorised my expulsion from Russia, but I found it inconceivable that he would allow state officials to steal $230million from his own government. I thought that if we brought this to the attention of the Russian authorities, the good guys would get the bad guys and that would be it.

On July 23, 2008, we started filing detailed complaints about the fraud, sending them to every law enforcement agency in Russia. Unfortunately, it turned out there were no good guys in Russia. Instead of going after the officials who committed this crime, the Russian authorities opened criminal cases against all my lawyers.

My two most senior lawyers were summoned to appear at the Kazan Interior Ministry’s headquarters for questioning. The Kazan police are notorious for sodomising detainees with champagne bottles to extract confessions. These two lawyers never went to Kazan – I convinced them to get out of Russia and come to the safety of London.

Shortly thereafter, the Russian authorities turned their attention to another of my lawyers, 37-year-old Sergei Magnitsky. Despite my pleading with him to leave, he refused. ‘The law will protect me,’ he told me.
Sergei was an idealist. Not only did he stay, but he bravely testified against the officials involved. In retaliation, two of Kuznetsov’s subordinates went to Sergei’s modest Moscow flat, turned the place upside down, and arrested him in front of his wife and two children.

As he was led away, Sergei forced a smile and said he’d be back soon. But he wouldn’t.
Sergei was placed in pre-trial detention where he could be held for up to a year. Over the following months he was moved from cell to cell – each one worse than the last. One contained 14 inmates but had only eight beds. The lights were left on 24 hours a day and the prisoners slept in shifts.

Another cell had no heat and no windowpanes to keep out the Arctic air and Sergei nearly froze to death. Toilets – merely holes in the ground – were not screened from the sleeping area, and sewage often bubbled up and ran over the floor. In a third cell, the only electrical outlets were located next to the toilet, so he had to boil water in a kettle while standing over the rank latrine.

Worse than the physical discomfort, though, was the psychological torture. Sergei was a devoted family man, yet he was refused contact with them. The purpose of everything the authorities were doing was simple: to compel Sergei to retract his testimony. Yet he never would, and each time he refused, they made his living conditions worse.
Over time he began to suffer acute stomach pains and violent bouts of vomiting. By mid-June 2009, he had lost 40lb. He was diagnosed with pancreatitis and gallstones, and surgery was scheduled for August 1. However, a week before the operation, Sergei was abruptly moved to Butyrka, a maximum-security prison that had been a notorious station on the way to the Soviet gulags. It had no medical facilities that could deal with his illness.

For weeks he languished in his cell, his agony growing worse. He and his lawyers desperately applied for medical attention. They wrote more than 20 requests to every branch of the penal, judicial and law enforcement systems. All were ignored or denied.

At this point many would break, which is what the authorities wanted. But Sergei wouldn’t. Instead, on October 14, 2009, he submitted a 12-page testimony to the Interior Ministry, further documenting the role of officials involved in the financial fraud and subsequent cover-up.

At the end, he wrote: ‘I believe all members of the investigation team are acting as contractors under someone’s criminal order.’ People in Russia are killed for saying less.

It was at this time that my colleagues began receiving threatening text messages. After Sergei’s visit to the courthouse where he’d been chained to the radiator, we got word from his mother Nataliya, who’d been at the court, that Sergei looked unwell and that his spirit seemed broken.

We asked his lawyer to visit him the next morning, but the lawyer was out of town. No one else was authorised to see him, so we had to wait until the following Monday. It was that night I received the voicemail of a man being beaten.
On Monday, November 16, 2009, Sergei’s lawyer went to Butyrka to see him. However, officials said they couldn’t bring him out because he was ‘too unwell to leave his cell’. The lawyer asked for a copy of Sergei’s medical report but the prison officials refused. They were deliberately giving his lawyer the runaround.

What they didn’t tell the lawyer was that after months of untreated illness, Sergei’s body had finally succumbed, and he’d gone into a critical condition. He had been transferred to a different prison with a medical facility.
However, when he arrived, instead of being taken to the emergency room, he was taken to an isolation cell and handcuffed to a bed. There, he was visited by eight guards in full riot gear. He demanded that the lead officer call his lawyer.

But the riot guards weren’t there to help him – they were there to beat him. They laid into him viciously with rubber batons. One hour and 18 minutes later, a civilian doctor arrived and found Sergei dead on the floor. His wife would never hear his voice again, his mother would never see his easy smile, his children would never feel the squeeze of his soft hands.

‘Keeping me in detention,’ Sergei had written in his prison diary, ‘has nothing to do with the lawful purpose of detention. It is a punishment, imposed merely for the fact that I defended the interests of my client and the interests of the Russian state.’

Sergei was killed for his ideals. He was killed because he believed in the law. He was killed because he loved his people, and because he loved Russia. And I wasn’t going to let his murderers get away with it.

Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No 1 Enemy, by Bill Browder, will be published by Bantam Press on February 5. To buy your copy at the special price of £15.19, with free p&p for a limited time, visit www.mailbookshop.co.uk.
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