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19th Jul 2018

Feature

EU and US duped on Russia corruption, film-maker claims

  • Browder (r) with Magnitsky's widow and son and MEPs in EU parliament in 2014 (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

A Russian film-maker claims to have unmasked what would be the most audacious deception of EU and US institutions in modern times.

Andrei Nekrasov, who is better known as a critic of the Russian regime, put forward the accusations in a documentary to be screened in the European Parliament (EP) on Wednesday (27 April).

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  • Nekrasov (c) in a scene from his new film (Photo: greens-efa.eu)

The film says that Bill Browder, a British businessman, fraudulently convinced politicians and investigators on both sides of the Atlantic that Russian officials stole $230 million from Russian taxpayers and murdered the man, Sergei Magnitsky, who reported the crime.

The case prompted US sanctions on Russia, poisoning relations in the run-up to the Ukraine conflict. It also led to EU calls for similar measures.

“The scoop is how the whole world was fooled by this absurd case,” Nekrasov told EUobserver in Brussels on Tuesday.

“It just doesn’t add up. It’s some kind of hypnosis. It’s all based on prejudice and ideology.”

His film comes amid a massive Russian propaganda effort to discredit Moscow’s critics and to persuade the EU to lift its economic sanctions in July.

“This [the film] is a calculated attempt to harm our campaign and to make people doubt the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky,” Browder told this website from London, referring to his campaign for wider EU sanctions.

“The film is … degrading to the dignity of Sergei Magnitsky, degrading to the deceased, who cannot defend himself. This film has been made in the interest of those who are scared of the truth,” Magnitsky’s mother and widow said in a joint letter to the EP from Moscow also on Tuesday.

They urged the parliament not to show it.

“I think that’s a very superficial reading of the film … I know I’ve put myself in the firing line, but I really want to know what the facts are,” said Heidi Hautala, a Finnish Green MEP who organised the EP screening.

Nine-year campaign

Browder managed a multi-billion dollar hedge fund in Russia in the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule.

He said Russian officials and mafia enforcers snatched control of three of his subsidiary companies and used them to falsely claim back the firms’ tax payments.

He said they laundered the money via European banks and offshore entities and used it to buy luxury properties in Russia and the Middle East.

He also said that when his Russian lawyer, Magnitsky, reported the theft he was jailed and killed in prison in order to stop the truth from getting out.

Browder’s nine-year campaign made Magnitsky into a cause celebre for Russian human rights activists.

His evidence inspired the US to blacklist the Russian officials involved and freeze assets related to the case.

In Europe, it prompted three EP resolutions calling for sanctions, and multiple complaints to Russia by the heads of the EU Council and European Commission.

The evidence was corroborated by an investigation by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg which, in 2014, voted in favour of punitive measures on Russia.

It also prompted the Swiss federal prosecutor to freeze millions of dollars of assets.

In a new twist, the OCCRP, a club of European investigative reporters, on Tuesday published documents showing that Sergei Roldugin, a close friend of Putin, got $800,000 from an offshore firm, Delco, which had been used to launder the stolen Russian tax money.

The OCCRP obtained the documents from the Panama Papers leak in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington.

Spying allegations

But Russian authorities and now Nekrasov have different versions of what took place.

A Moscow district court in 2013 convicted Browder in absentia of tax fraud and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

It said that Magnitsky, whom it had prosecuted posthumously, was part of the plot but closed its case against the deceased man.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said Magnitsky died of heart failure and that he had suffered no physical abuse in pre-trial detention.

The Russian interior ministry has cleared its officials of wrongdoing and said the stolen money could not be found because all record of it had been burned in a car crash.

Russian officials and media have also said Browder was a Western spy.

Russia’s prosecutor general last year said he worked for the US intelligence service the CIA and tried to get commercial secrets from Russian energy firm Gazprom.

A documentary on the Russia 1 TV channel said in April that he worked for the British intelligence service MI6 and that he had orchestrated Magnitsky’s death to blacken Russia’s name.

Nekrasov’s documentary - The Magnitsky Act - Behind the Scenes - does not accuse Browder of tax fraud or espionage.

But the film, seen by EUobserver, portrays him as a selfish businessman who systematically misrepresented evidence to US and European institutions to create an alibi in order to evade Russian justice.

'Anti-Putin hero’

“The made-up story of Magnitsky uncovering a crime and being killed for it was used to deceive the US Congress, the parliament of Canada, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the OSCE [a European pro-democracy body], numerous NGOs and many ordinary citizens,” Nekrasov said at the end of his film.

“Demonise a state [Russia] and its every court verdict will be a bad joke.”

He told EUobserver that Browder did it because without his alibi “he may have been extradited to Russia”.

The two-hour long film is given weight by its sponsors and by Nekrasov’s credentials as a critic of the Putin regime.

He said it was funded by Arte, a Franco-German TV channel that plans to broadcast the film on 3 May. He said Finnish and Norwegian broadcasters YLE and NRK as well as the Finnish and Norwegian film institutes also helped.

Nekrasov in the past made films accusing Putin of murdering Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian spy who fled to the UK, and of blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow to justify a war in Chechnya.

“All of them [the sponsors] are Western and very, very high quality. I’m afraid for Bill Browder … that he won’t be able to dismiss it as a Russian film,” he told this website.

“Browder and MEPs have nothing to say to me. I was almost poisoned over Litvinenko. I was almost blown up in Chechnya,” he said.

“I’m the anti-Putin hero, not Europe. Their talk of Russia is free-of-charge blah blah blah. I put my life on the line fighting Putin."

Hautala, the Finnish MEP who organised the EP screening, has also been critical of Russia in the past. She initiated the first EP resolution on Magnitsky.

“All the people who have been involved [in backing Browder] quote one source - Bill Browder - and this needs some more clarity,” she told EUobserver.

Karpov invited

Her initiative has set the scene for an information war in the EU capital.

Her office invited Browder and Nekrasov to attend a debate after the screening. It also invited Pavel Karpov, one of the Russian officials on the US blacklist.

Browder boycotted the debate and plans to make his rebuttal in a separate press conference in the EP on Thursday.

He has compiled a dossier of photos and official Russian documents that he says disprove the principal claims in Nekrasov’s film.

One of the claims is that Magnitsky wasn’t a whistleblower because he never denounced the main Russian suspects.

But Browder’s copy of Magnitsky’s testimony to Russia’s Investigative Committee on 5 June 2008 names them several times each.

Nekrasov also tried to undermine Browder on the issue at the heart of the affair - the manner of Magnitsky’s death.

He said Russian authorities didn’t abuse him in prison and that he died of heart failure.

But autopsy photos put forward by Browder show that he was beaten with rubber batons on the last day of his life. Russia’s own Human Rights Council said the beating was linked to his death.

Follow the money

Browder noted the film made no mention of what happened to the $230 million and of documents, including details of bank transfers, that show the alleged culprits moving the money out of Russia and buying luxury real estate.

When asked by EUobserver, Nekrasov said he has extra material on the money trail that he aims to air in an online video but that Arte made the film too short to put it in.

He said he could not use some US and Swiss financial data he obtained because it was confidential.

He also cast doubt on the professionalism of US sleuths and on the motives of the OCCRP report on Putin’s friend.

“You walk into the office of the [New York] district court and you say so-and-so did this and the prosecutor says ‘OK. It sounds plausible, I’ll freeze the accounts’,” he said.

“The OCCRP is financed by USAID [a branch of the US government] … how can it be called an independent investigation if it’s USAID?”, he said.

'She vouched for Nekrasov'

Browder told EUobserver: “I’d like to know what was so compelling for him [Nekrasov] to lie in such a blatant way.”

He added that Hautala, the Finnish MEP “bears a big responsibility for this attack”.

“Because she vouched for Nekrasov … we even encouraged Sergei [Magnitsky's] mother to give an interview, which he totally distorted and caused her great distress,” he said.

Hautala, according to Finnish media, has had a romantic relationship with Nekrasov.

She told EUobserver: “We are close friends. I’ve known him since many years. We’ve been ardently pursuing Putin’s regime together. That’s all I can say.”

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