Thursday

2nd Apr 2020

Cyprus helping Russia to roll back US sanctions

  • Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades with Putin in Moscow in 2015 (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Cyprus is helping Russia to roll back US sanctions against human rights abusers, a leading activist has warned.

The accusation, by Bill Browder, a British campaigner, comes after Cypriot authorities honoured Russia's request to question Browder's law firm, Georgiades & Pelides, in Nicosia, for a second time.

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  • Browder: "I would be terrified of going to Cyprus" (Photo: davos.ch)

Browder told EUobserver that the Russian investigation was designed to smear his name.

That, in turn, would help Russia in its lobbying to overturn the Magnitsky Act, a US law that Browder inspired, which empowers US authorities to seize money held overseas by Russian human rights abusers.

"This is designed to discredit me in their long-term efforts to get the Magnitsky Act repealed," Browder said.

"Cyprus is now playing an extra-territorial role in Russia's cover-up of the Magnitsky case," he said.

Russian envoys also lobbied US leader Donald Trump's family in New York last year in a wider campaign against the Magnitsky law.

The EU declined to impose similar laws, but Cyprus stands alone in Europe in helping Russia to undo the US measures.

British, Dutch, French, and German authorities, as well as Interpol, the international police agency, have refused to honour Russia's legal assistance requests on grounds that they were politically motivated.

Browder said his lawyers had warned the Cypriot justice ministry that this was the case.

"But they [Cypriot authorities] wrote back to us in a letter that looked like it had been drafted by the Russian prosecutor's office and cut and pasted onto the Cyprus government's stationery," he said.

Russian investigators already questioned Georgiades & Pelides in 2015.

They filed a second legal request in August, with Browder now seeking a court injunction in Nicosia to stop the new interrogation from going ahead.

"There is a real prospect of irrevocable harm to be caused to Mr Browder … by any acts to advance that questionnaire," an affidavit filed by Browder's lawyer said.

"If the various requested documents, information, and testimony are handed over by Cyprus to the Russian investigators they will be used … to further advance the cover-up of the $230 million fraud and the involvement of Russian government officials in it," the affidavit said.

Magnitsky affair

The Magnitsky Act was named after Sergei Magnitsky, Browder's former auditor in Russia when Browder was a hedge fund manager.

Magnitsky found out that Russian officials had embezzled $230 million (€196mn) from the state, but he wound up dying in prison after he exposed the scam.

Russia then accused Browder and Magnitsky of having stolen the money.

They went after Browder's lawyers in Cyprus because he used to manage some of his Russian assets via a holding firm there due to Cyprus' favourable tax regime.

The US at first imposed asset freezes on 17 Russians under the Magnitsky Act, but the list has now grown to 44 names.

If it keeps growing, it could reach the top, amid recent revelations that a close friend of Russian leader Vladimir Putin took some of the stolen $230 million.

Cyprus is also helping to protect illicit Russian money more directly.

Browder, back in 2012, gave Cypriot authorities 133 pages of documents which showed that $31 million of the stolen money was moved out of Russia into the EU via five Cypriot banks.

But Cypriot authorities did not do anything about it.

"We found the Cypriot law enforcement authorities to be hopeless in conducting the kind of anti-money laundering investigations that other European countries have been pursuing seriously and fearlessly, but at the same time the Cypriots are highly cooperative with Russia in persecuting me for my work on the Magnitsky justice campaign," Browder said.

Extradition fear

He said he was afraid to set foot in Cyprus in case it extradited him to Russia to meet the same fate as Magnitsky.

"I would be terrified of going to Cyprus because I believe I would be delivered back to Russia," Browder said.

The Cypriot foreign ministry declined to comment.

The Cypriot justice ministry did not reply to EUobserver's queries.

A recent investigation by the OCCRP, a journalist's club in eastern Europe, found that Cyprus helped to move $871 million of other illicit Russian money out of Russia between 2011 and 2014.

A leaked report by German intelligence in 2012 said Russian criminals and oligarchs held $26 billion in deposits on the island, a sum about the same size as Cyprus' GDP.

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