5th Mar 2024

Murder case puts pressure on EU-Russia diplomacy

  • Sticker in EU commission press room at EU-Russia meeting in February. Barroso asked Putin about Magnitsky in private talks (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

EU diplomacy should be guided by basic moral imperatives and open parliamentary politics, not behind-closed-doors strategising, a prominent campaigner has said.

Bill Browder, a US-born British venture capitalist who a few years ago was the biggest foreign investor on the Russian stock market, is targeting the European Parliament and national EU assemblies to make the European Council impose sanctions on Russian officials.

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Browder has put together a list of 60 people in the Russian interior ministry, justice system and the secret police, the FSB, who he says tortured and murdered his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, after he exposed their multi-million-euro tax scam.

On Monday (30 May), the Russian general prosecutor in a statement said one of the top men on the list, Oleg Silchenko, committed "no violations of federal law", in what Browder's side called an ongoing "whitewash" that "damages the credibility" of the Russian government.

Browder, who has published hard evidence of how the Russian officials scammed the Russian taxpayer, wants the EU to impose an asset freeze and travel ban on the men and women involved.

"We're saying: Don't let torturers and murderes come into Europe. No official should sacrifice morality for the vague concept of better relations, even with Russia," he told EUobserver after meeting with MEPs on the EU-Russia inter-parliamentary committee last week.

The Browder campaign has already made an impact on EU-Russia diplomacy.

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton's top man on Russia, Gunnar Wiegand, told Browder and the euro-deputies that EU officials ask Russian counterparts about Magnitsky at every high-level meeting.

He said the case came up in talks between European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in February, at the EU-Russia human rights consultations in May and at a meeting between home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and Russian justice ministers two weeks ago.

Wiegand added he has high hopes for a special enquiry headed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's human rights advisor, Mikhail Fedotov. "Our impression is that he takes these things very seriously," he said, after meeting Fedotov.

A senior source in Ashton's European External Action Service (EEAS) said there is "no chance" of EU sanctions on Browder's group-of-60, however.

The contact said EU sanctions policy is guided by "strategic objectives" and the principle of "consistency." He added: "We impose sanctions on top political leaders who have embarked on systematic crackdowns against the general population, as in Belarus, Syria, Libya. There are many cases of judicial problems in third countries, but we can't impose sanctions on them all."

Browder is not willing to accept the status quo, however.

"People within [the EEAS] may have personal opinions about whether this may or may not happen. But ultimately the decision of whether to impose sanctions will be based on public opinion and how that opinion affects democratically-elected members of parliaments and governments in the EU. We are building up public pressure across the EU to make this happen," he said.

He noted that the British, Dutch, Czech, German and Polish parliaments have so far shown sympathy.

He also pointed to the Magnistky Act in the US congress, a bipartisan bill introduced by 15 senators that will see the US move ahead with visa bans and asset freezes on the list-of-60 if it goes through.

For their part, MEPs in a resolution in December called for EU countries to "consider" punitive measures. And Swiss authorities have already frozen the bank accounts of some of the officials involved.

Browder recalled in the EU parliament hearing how news of Magnitsky's death in a phone call on the morning of 16 November 2009 planted his moral resolve.

"It was about the most horrible thing a person can feel. It broke my heart. I made a decision then and there that the people who did this will face justice," he said.

Magnitsky is believed to have died due to the rupture of his abdominal membrane caused by toxic shock when prison officers withheld essential medication. In an indication of other abuses, his mother noted at his burial that the 37-year-old father of two had broken fingers and that his hands were "black and blue" with bruises.

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