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18th Jan 2020

Putin asks Trump to go after British activist

  • Donald Trump (l) with Vladimir Putin (r) on Monday. 'Trust no one,' Putin said (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Russia has urged the US to help it go after a British human rights campaigner in return for cooperation in an election-meddling probe.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin made the offer at a press conference with American president Donald Trump after a summit in Helsinki on Monday (16 July).

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  • Browder: 'The rule of law will protect me' (Photo: davos.ch)

He said US sleuths investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US vote could come to Russia to question 12 Russian suspects who were recently indicted in the affair.

"But in this case, there is another condition. This kind of effort should be a mutual one … For instance, we can bring up Mr Browder in this particular case," Putin said.

Putin accused Bill Browder of tax fraud in Russia in 2007, when Browder had a hedge fund there.

Putin also accused Browder, without evidence, of donating $400m of illicit money to Hillary Clinton, Trump's rival in the 2016 election.

"I think that's an incredible offer," Trump said on Putin's quid-pro-quo request on Browder.

American politicians seized on the fact that Trump also accepted Putin's denial on election meddling, while denigrating US intelligence assessments to the contrary.

Treason

The US leader's comments were "treasonous", former CIA chief John Brennan said.

But Trump's acceptance of Putin's offer on Browder was likewise strange, not least because Browder is a British national since 1998, when he gave up his US citizenship, meaning that Trump would either have to arrest Browder if he visited America, or put pressure on Britain to extradite him in order for Putin to get his way.

The fact Putin brought up 11-year old tax issues at the Helsinki summit might also seem odd.

Putin's thorn

But Browder has become a thorn in Putin's side ear since he transformed his hedge fund into a London-based pressure group for Western sanctions on Russia.

Browder's campaign has seen the Baltic states, Canada, the UK, and the US impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials deemed guilty of having murdered Browder's former lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, as part of a mafia scam.

It has also seen the US and some European countries seize millions of euros of illicit Russian funds, some of which trickled to Putin's close friends.

Meanwhile, the fact the US has no jurisdiction on Browder does not mean Trump's words were harmless.

They were likely to embolden Russia-friendly EU states, such as Cyprus, which had earlier attracted opprobrium for helping Russia to attack Browder.

They might also embolden law enforcement officers further afield in Europe, amid Russia's ongoing attempts to use Interpol, the international police agency, to get Browder extradited.

The British campaigner already has to seek guarantees of safe passage whenever he leaves the UK, for instance to speak to Danish or Dutch MPs.

He was arrested in Spain in June when he tried to meet a Spanish anti-mafia prosecutor on the Magnitsky case.

He was also briefly prevented from visiting the US in 2017 due to Russia's Interpol intrigues.

"I'm still working on getting the facts of how this [Spanish] arrest originated, but the timing of it right before my testimony to the prosecutor was highly suspicious," Browder told EUobserver at the time.

"Crazy day today as Putin wants to swap 12 Russian GRU [military intelligence] agents who hacked the US election for me," Browder tweeted on Monday.

"He [Putin] has basically lost it, emotionally, because his own money in the West is now being seized," Browder told the New York Times, an American newspaper, the same day.

"America is a rule-of-law country, and I think that the rule of law will protect me," he added.

Crimea, Novichok, gas

The Helsinki summit also saw the US and Russia revive a nuclear arms control treaty called Start.

Trump did not mention Russia's war in east Ukraine or its annexation of Crimea, however.

He also did not mention Russia's use of a nerve toxin, called Novichok, to try to kill a former spy in the UK in March.

Putin spoke for Trump on Crimea instead.

"The posture of president Trump on Crimea is well known, and he stands firmly by it. He continued to maintain that it was illegal to annex it … our viewpoint is different," the Russian leader said.

Trump did mention Russia and Germany's plan to build a new gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2 (NS2).

He was far softer than when he gored German leader Angela Merkel over the project at a Nato summit last week, however.

He called her plan a "horrible" betrayal, but he told Putin only that NS2 would compete with US exports of shale gas to Europe.

"I called [Putin] him a competitor … the word 'competitor' is a compliment. I think that we'll be competing, when you talk about the pipeline," Trump said.

For his part, Putin mentioned that when Trump went to a business forum in St Petersburg in May, he also seemed keen to make money with Russia.

"There were over 500 American businessmen - high-ranking, high-level ones [at the forum] … do you remember?" the Russian president said.

'Trust no one'

"Our relationship [the US and Russia] has never been worse than it is now. However, that changed as of about four hours ago. I really believe that," Trump said in Helsinki.

"As to who is to be believed and to who is not to be believed, you can trust no one," Putin said, referring back to the election-meddling allegations.

"Where did you get this idea that president Trump trusts me or I trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America, and I do defend the interests of the Russian Federation," Putin said.

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