True Spies Episode 53: Russia’s Most Wanted
Warning: This episode includes some descriptions of violence and torture that some listeners may find difficult.
Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?.
This is True Spies Episode 53: Russia’s Most Wanted.
BILL BROWDER: My name is Bill Browder. I'm the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and I'm the head of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign and, for more than a decade, I was the largest foreign investor in Russia before I fell out with the Putin regime and became the biggest enemy of Vladimir Putin.
NARRATOR: And why was Bill Browder Putin’s biggest enemy?
BILL BROWDER: Because I found his Achilles’ heel, I found the thing that he cares about most, which is his money and the money of those people close to him.
NARRATOR: In the autumn of 2007, a bright, young Russian tax advisor called Sergei Magnitsky was hired by Bill Browder to investigate an audacious $230 mn tax theft by Russian state officials fraudulently using his company. What Sergei discovered went all the way to the highest levels of the Kremlin. That discovery cost him his life.
BILL BROWDER: Sergei Magnitsky testified against some corrupt Russian officials and five weeks after his testimony, on the 24 of November 2008, he was arrested, put in pretrial detention, and then tortured. They put him in cells with 14 inmates in eight beds and left the lights on 24 hours a day to impose sleep deprivation. They put him in cells with no heat and no window panes in December in Moscow so he nearly froze to death.
NARRATOR: To give you an idea, Moscow is roughly -7 Celsius in winter. That’s 19 degrees Fahrenheit.
BILL BROWDER: They put him in cells with no toilet, just a hole in the floor with the sewage would bubble up. And the purpose of all this was to get him to withdraw his testimony against these corrupt police officers and to get him to sign a false confession, to say that he stole this $230 mn that these officials had actually stolen themselves. And Sergei was a man of such incredible principle and integrity that, for him, the idea of perjuring himself and bearing false witness was more awful and more painful than the physical pain they were subjecting him to. And he refused. And as a result, his torture got more and more intense. They did more and more terrible things to him.
NARRATOR: After six months, Sergei Magnitsky’s health started to deteriorate rapidly.
BILL BROWDER: He got terrible pains in his stomach. He ended up losing 20 kilos [44 pounds] and he was diagnosed as having pancreatitis and gallstones and needing an operation. They came to him again, asked him to sign a false confession. Again he refused and, in retaliation, they moved him to a different prison, a maximum-security prison called Butyrka.
NARRATOR: Butyrka is an imposing red-brick prison in Moscow; it’s notorious for its squalid and torturous conditions. Inmates have been known to say that authorities send you to Butyrka with one goal: to break you.
BILL BROWDER: There was no medical wing there to treat his ailments. He went into a terrible downward spiral, constant agonizing, untreated pancreatic pain. He and his lawyers wrote 20 different desperate requests for medical attention to every different branch of the Russian criminal justice system. Every one of their requests was either ignored or denied in writing. And on the night of November 16th, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky went into critical condition. The Butyrka authorities didn't want to have responsibility for him anymore and so they put him into an ambulance and sent him to a different prison that had a medical wing. But when he arrived there, instead of putting him in the emergency room, they put him in an isolation room. They chained him to a bed and eight riot guards with rubber batons beat Sergei until he died. That was November 16th, 2009. He was 37-years old. He left a wife and two children.
NARRATOR: The Kremlin line, until recently, had always been that Sergei died of natural causes. Russian President Vladimir Putin denied any torture, contrary to evidence provided in a prison report from the night and a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that responsibility for Sergei’s death does indeed lie with Russian officials. Bill vividly remembers the morning that changed his life. He was in bed in his London home when he got a call from a Russian lawyer.
BILL BROWDER: He told me that Sergei had been killed. And for me, it was the most traumatic, shocking, life-changing news I could have ever gotten in my most pessimistic, worst-case scenario. I couldn't have imagined that Sergei Magnitsky would be killed. And when I was finally able to get through the heartbreak and hysteria of the moment to think clearly, it was obvious that there was only one thing I could do, which was to put aside everything else I was doing and devote all of my time, all of my resources, and all of my energy going after the people who killed him, make sure they faced justice… Corruption in the Putin regime...
NARRATOR: It’s a deadly pursuit and even now Bill lives each day as a wanted man.
BILL BROWDER: If I go anywhere near Russia, if I go to any friendly country to Russia, I could be arrested and sent back to Russia.
NARRATOR: To understand how exactly Bill Browder became Russia’s most wanted, we have to go back to the early 20th century where Bill’s story really begins…
BILL BROWDER: My grandfather, Earl Browder, was a labor union organizer in the 1920s in Wichita, Kansas. And he was so good at organizing the union that the communists spotted him. And they said: ‘If you love labor, if you like labor unionism, you're going to love communism. Why don't you come to Moscow to check it out?’ And so in 1927, my grandfather Earl moved to Moscow. He quickly did what most other Western single men do when they get to Moscow. He met a Russian girl who became my grandmother. My father was born in Moscow. And then, five years later, he returned to America in 1932 and became the head of the American Communist Party and so this was my family legacy.
NARRATOR: But this path didn’t really appeal to the young man who grew up in the mid-western city of Chicago - a metropolis made from industry, manufacturing, and a big old helping of capitalism…
BILL BROWDER: I was born in 1964 and, as I was going through my teenage rebellion, I was trying to figure out the best way of rebelling from this family of communists.
NARRATOR: And while most teenagers would maybe take up smoking or get a tattoo, what do you do when you want to rebel against the rebels?
BILL BROWDER: One day I had this epiphany, which was to put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist - and that was a perfect rebellion in my family - and so I became a capitalist. I went to Stanford Business School. I graduated in 1989, which was the year the Berlin Wall came down. And as I was trying to figure out what to do with my life afterward, I thought: ‘If my grandfather was the biggest communist in America and the Berlin Wall has just come down, I'm going to try to become the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe.’ That's what I set out to do.
NARRATOR: And like any capitalist, that decision wasn’t just about rebellion. It was about money and in the post-Soviet ‘Wild East’. There was some real capital to be made.
BILL BROWDER: There was an unbelievable business opportunity, which was that they had created something called the ‘mass privatization program’ to go from communism to capitalism.
NARRATOR: I’ll let Bill explain this one.
BILL BROWDER: They decided to make everybody in the country capitalists. And the way they decided to do that was to take all property, which had previously been owned by the state, and basically give it away to the people for free. And so, all these Russians ended up with all these shares of all these companies. Some of these companies were incredibly valuable and they were trading at a 99.9 percent discount to similar companies in the West. And so, I made the decision to move out there to Moscow in 1996 and set up an investment fund to invest in the shares of these newly privatized companies.
NARRATOR: He set up Hermitage Capital Management from Moscow - which at one point was the largest foreign investor in Russia - making the most of these discount shares on offer. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia at that time is best described as chaotic and lawless...
BILL BROWDER: It was the craziest decision anybody could take. There [were] killings going on every day on the street in Moscow, bankers and shop owners being murdered. The mafia was running rampant - total Wild West place - and to avoid getting killed I set up an anonymous office in a building where nobody knew where I was, and nobody knew what I was doing, and I kept my head down. And, at the time, the Russian mafia - who was effectively running the country - were focusing on all the visible signs of money and wealth and so on, and they didn't seem to notice me. And so, for a while, I lived a pretty well below the radar screen, a safe life.
NARRATOR: In the ‘Wild East’, Bill’s company made the most of the spirit of financial adventurism. Hermitage was able to minimize tax payments by making use of a special zone in the republic of Kalmykia, north of the Caucasus. Kalmykia had a lower tax rate and also offered tax breaks for companies with a majority disabled workforce.
BILL BROWDER: At the time I was managing a portfolio of assets worth more than $4.5 bn. There were no Westerners working at the same level as me.
NARRATOR: But compared to some Russian capitalists, it was peanuts. The main business owners in Russia, at the time, were these people known as the Russian oligarchs. And the Russian oligarchs in many cases were much, much bigger than me. Think Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club known for his mind-boggling collection of superyachts, luxury cars, private planes, and lavish homes all over the world. He’s worth an estimated $15 bn. And how did he get so rich? Well, when the Soviet Union collapsed, a small group of individuals with close and rather lucrative connections to the Russian leaders were given ownership of the country’s industries and natural resources, from steel to natural gas. Abramovich made his money in oil. These people quickly became eye-wateringly rich and essentially untouchable. And with wealth comes enormous power. To this day, these oligarchs hold sway over the Russian government and almost every aspect of daily life in the country. You’re maybe wondering: ‘Why the history lesson?’ Well, Bill was doing business in Moscow with some of these companies and, when he looked into their finances, alarm bells started ringing…
BILL BROWDER: I noticed that all the profits were disappearing out the back door.
NARRATOR: Which means?
BILL BROWDER: When I say that they were taking the money out the back door, this is not like somebody padding out their expense account. I'm talking about [companies] like Gazprom.
NARRATOR: Russia's largest oil company.
BILL BROWDER: Taking a field of gas reserves that's worth $2 bn and then selling it to the brother of the CEO for $100,000, and things like that. I mean literally wholesale theft on an order of magnitude that's unimaginable. We calculated that between 1996 and 1999, Gazprom management team - Gazprom is the largest gas company in the world - the management team at Gazprom, which consisted of government-appointed people - and, I think, at the time it was like nine individuals - had stolen oil and gas reserves equal to the size of Kuwait out of the company for their own benefit.
NARRATOR: And how did Bill know all this?
BILL BROWDER: Well, so Russia is seen from the outside as being really opaque, hard to pin down in place, and you ask people questions, and they don't answer them properly, and so on. But what's interesting about Russia is that being a former Soviet country, being a former centrally-planned communist country, the bureaucracy there is unbelievable. So if you have to if you go to the bathroom, you've got to fill out a form. And then that form gets filed in triplicate to three different ministries. And then they keep track of everyone who went to every bathroom in the country. And, because all this mundane information is stored in a lot of different places, you don't have data protection like you do here. And so you end up in a situation where - because of the bureaucracy and because the people in the bureaucracy are so poorly paid - there’s a sort of free-information market where these people will sell you a disc with, like, with all the database of whatever it is you're thinking about or looking at for like $5. And so, we started buying these discs, and from these discs we could put together the most incredible analysis of stealing that you could ever imagine.
NARRATOR: Remember, this was a lawless time. As Bill said, murders were commonplace and corruption rife. So what would you do if you had incriminating evidence against the biggest company in the country whose chairman of the board - at that time - was also the country’s prime minister? Play it safe and keep quiet? Extortion, maybe? Play the game and make some money yourself? Or go up against them? Remember, you’re investing in these companies, so some of that money disappearing out the backdoor is yours.
BILL BROWDER: There was an orgy of stealing going on at these companies. And, at the time, there was no regulator. There was no police. There was nobody to do anything about it, but I knew that if I didn't do something myself that, basically, I was going to end up with zero.
NARRATOR: The capitalist was not about to see his hard-earned $4 bn stake in Russian companies disappear from those businesses into the corrupt pockets of the country’s richest. So he chose Option 3 - take on the oligarchs, the government officials, and the management...
BILL BROWDER: Which were all sort of intertwined, this sort of constellation of what I call ‘bad guys’.
NARRATOR: Good luck… you’ll need it.
BILL BROWDER: I started to do this - what I call ‘naming and shaming campaigns’ - where we would research how these people went about doing the stealing. We document the research in a simple-to-understand way, share that research with The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The New York Times, etc, and then create scandals around these big theft situations.
NARRATOR: A risky game to play…
BILL BROWDER: I mean, it was clear that I was going to be upsetting a lot of very powerful people and so I ended up having a really high level of security. I, at one time, was traveling around with 16 bodyguards. Whenever I moved around Moscow, I would be in my car with two heavily armed guards, and then there would be three other cars, a lead car, a lag car, and a sidecar for driving with us. We'd go from my office to my home, and the lead car would peel off and get there quicker. And then the guards would jump out and scan the rooftops for snipers and cars from the building for bombs, and then clear the stairwell. And then everyone else would get me into the apartment. When we were in the midst of some of these big campaigns, it was, like, full-on total security.
NARRATOR: This was around the turn of the century when Russia got a new president. Initially, Bill found an unlikely ally in him…
BILL BROWDER: Vladimir Putin had come to power and when he became president his presidency had been so diminished by the corruption of the oligarchs that they owned all the levers of power. They basically had bribed individuals and the police and law and prosecutor's office to work for them, not not for the president. And so the first thing that Putin wanted to do when he became president was to strip the illegitimate power of the oligarchs. And there's an expression - ‘your enemy’s enemy is your friend’ - and so I was attacking the oligarchs who were stealing money from me and he was mad that the oligarchs were stealing power from him. And so, every time I would publicize the scandal, he would step in - not because he liked me, and I should say I never met the guy or even talked to him - but I would put these scandals out there and all of a sudden the president of the country would step in and crush them and my share prices would go up.
NARRATOR: So how did Bill go from being an ally to Putin to becoming the man he hated most? The answer is very simple. It’s what’s at the heart of this story: money.
BILL BROWDER: One day, he decided he was going to win the war with the oligarchs by arresting the richest oligarch in the country, a man named Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is the owner of an oil company called Yukos. Putin arrests him. They put them on trial for tax evasion in Moscow and when you're on trial in Russia you sit in a cage. And so if you were the 17th richest man in Russia at that moment in time - and you're maybe on your yacht, and maybe you've just finished with your mistress in the bedroom - and you walk out the living room, and you flick on CNN and there you see this image of a guy far, far braver, far more powerful or smarter than you sitting in a cage… what's your natural reaction? You don't want to sit in that cage yourself. One by one by one they all went to Putin and said: ‘Vladimir, what do we have to do to make sure we don't sit in a cage?’ And Putin said: ‘Real simple, 50 percent.’ Not 50 percent for the Russian government or 50 percent for the presidential administration of Russia. Fifty percent for Vladimir Putin. And at that moment, he succeeded in what he wanted to do, which was to disempower the oligarchs and become the richest oligarch himself. And that was the moment that my interests diverged from his, and I was continuing to try to expose the crimes of the oligarchs, but instead of disclosing the crimes that Putin wanted to crush, I was now exposing the crimes that Putin was a 50 percent shareholder in. And they finally couldn't have that anymore, and that's when they turned on me.
NARRATOR: Bill Browder was now an enemy of the state and a ‘threat to national security’ that needed to be dealt with.
BILL BROWDER: On November 13th, 2005, I was flying from London to Moscow. I've been living in Moscow for 10 years. I'd gone on a weekend trip to London where I kept a flat and I arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport - which is the main international airport - and there's something called the VIP lounge at the airport, where if you pay a fee instead of having to wait in line with everybody else, you can go to this nice room where they serve you a little tea, and then they process your passport very quickly and you're off you go. But 45 minutes later, I'm still there. And then four heavily armed border guards burst into the VIP lounge. They grabbed me. They take my roll-along bag, and they frogmarched me down to the basement of the airport where they have an airport detention center, and they throw me in a cell and lock the door. And, at this point, I wasn't sure what was going on. I didn't know whether I was being arrested and going to be sent to Siberia or whether I was going to be deported and sent back to London. And this is Sunday night, sitting there, obviously can't do much sleeping during the night as I'm wondering what's going to happen.
NARRATOR: Bill knew there was one flight out of Moscow the next day at midday. If they weren’t planning on putting him on that plane, his fate… well, it wasn’t worth thinking about.
BILL BROWDER: Nine-thirty in the morning comes around, I figure this is the moment when they probably would need to, like, process me for deportation or whatever happens in such a circumstance. So I’m banging on the bars of the cell saying: ‘What's going on?’ And they ignored me. I'm now really starting to freak out. I'm panicking. I'm thinking: ‘Oh, my God. Still nothing by 11... 10:40... and, at this point, I'm now really just going out of my mind and thinking: ‘This is just terrible. With, like, 11 minutes to spare before the flight, the two guards grab me and then grab my bag and then escort me to the terminal. And then walk me into the Aeroflot plane, stick me in a middle seat in economy, throw my bag in the overhead compartment. Everyone is watching and I'm being deported. And when that plane took off, when it got into the air, it was just the biggest feeling of relief I've ever had that I wasn't going to be sent for 10 years into a Russian prison camp.
NARRATOR: But that relief was short-lived. After being deported to the UK and unable to return to Russia, Bill pitched up in London and pulled all of his employees and assets out of the country as fast and as quietly as he could. All that remained was a small office with a receptionist and some old documents at an American law firm office in Moscow.
BILL BROWDER: And I thought that was the end of the story and it turned out it wasn't. It was just the beginning of the worst nightmare you could ever imagine.
NARRATOR: The Russians weren’t finished with Bill.
BILL BROWDER: As I'm sitting in the board meeting, my phone rings. It's the secretary from Moscow who never called me - because there's nothing going on in Moscow - and she was in hysterics. And I calmed down and said: ‘What's going on?’ She said: ‘There are 25 police officers that have just raided the office looking for every document you have. What should I do?’ I thought: ‘I don't know, let me call up our lawyer.’ I had an American lawyer in Moscow. I called him up and said: ‘I got 25 police officers in my office. What should I do?’ And he said: ‘I don't know. I don't know. I got 25 police officers raiding our office right now looking for your documents. Let me get back to you.’ So, it turned out that there was a simultaneous raid at my office and my law firm’s office - 50 police officers looking for any documents they could get.
NARRATOR: What they were looking for specifically was stamps, seals, and any certificates for the companies Bill had invested his money through.
BILL BROWDER: They found them at the law firm’s office. They seized them.
NARRATOR: Why? Well, Bill wondered that too. That’s how he found Sergei Magnitsky.
BILL BROWDER: I said: ‘I need to find the smartest lawyer I can find in Russia to investigate this, figure out what they're doing and stop it.’ And I looked around. I said: ‘Who is that person?’ And I zeroed in on a 35-year-old young man named Sergei Magnitsky. He was the smartest lawyer I knew in Russia. He could run circles around everybody else.
NARRATOR: Now listen closely, because this is what Sergei found out about the people targeting Bill.
BILL BROWDER: He said: ‘I've discovered there were two parts of this whole process. The first was they wanted to steal all of your money. And that after seizing your companies, they then went to all the banks and custodians in Moscow where you kept your assets and demanded to have them handed over, but there's nothing left.’ And so I felt pretty good about that. I felt like I had made a really good judgment of getting everything out of there.
NARRATOR: The people trying to access those bank accounts were the same people who’d raided his offices. But that wasn’t the end of it. Sergei soon discovered that there was a second, more elaborate part of this fraud.
BILL BROWDER: So when I sold everything after I'd been kicked out, we had a huge profit. We had $1 bn of profit and, on that profit, we paid to the Russian government $230 mn of capital gains tax. And what these criminals did was - with all these documents they seized - they went back to the tax authorities and they said: ‘We need to file an amended tax return.’
NARRATOR: Posing as Bill’s company.
BILL BROWDER: They said there was a huge mistake made in the previous year. They said: ‘These companies didn't earn $1 bn. They actually earned zero.’ And they came up with a complicated way of fraudulently explaining that. And they said: ‘Because they earned zero, the $230 mn of taxes that was paid in the previous year was a huge mistake. It was paid in error and we'd like that money back.’ And so, on the 23rd of December 2007 - two days before Christmas - they applied for a $230 mn tax refund.
NARRATOR: This would be the largest tax refund in the history of Russia.
BILL BROWDER: It was approved and paid out the next day, Christmas Eve. No questions asked.
NARRATOR: But this wasn’t Bill’s money. They weren’t stealing $230 mn from him. They were stealing $230 mn from the Russian government and using Bill’s company to do it. Naturally, Bill and Sergei assumed rogue corrupt officials were behind it, police officers who wanted to make some big money.
BILL BROWDER: And so we figured if we just brought this to the attention of the most important law enforcement agencies, and so on, that the good guys will get the bad guys and that would be the end of the story. And so, we wrote criminal complaints to every different branch of the criminal justice system, to the head of the prosecutor's office, to the head of the Russian state investigative committee, to all sorts of people. I then went to the TV, radio, newspapers, explaining the whole fraud. And then Sergei went to the Russian version of the FBI, the Russian state investigative committee, and gave formal testimony against the police officers who conducted the raid that led to the fraud.
NARRATOR: If it seems implausible that the tax office would believe $230 mn worth of tax was paid accidentally, it is. No one makes that big a mistake. This was a complex, highly sophisticated, and organized crime. There were a lot of powerful people making money on the heist. Sergei’s testimony implicated some of Moscow’s highest tax officials, as well as police, judiciary, and bankers - all working together.
BILL BROWDER: We were astounded because we thought that - although Russia is a highly corrupt place and we've seen so many different versions of corruption - we never could imagine that Vladimir Putin would allow this to happen. He wouldn't allow nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to be stolen from his own government by his own corrupt officials. It turns out that, in Vladimir Putin's Russia, there are no good guys. And so five weeks after Sergei testified against these police officers, the same police officers he testified against came to his home on the 24th of November 2008, arrested him, and threw him in pretrial detention where he was then tortured for 358 days. And killed him on November 16th, 2009.
NARRATOR: During Sergei’s time in the hellish Butyrka prison he wrote detailed diaries of what he endured. In one he writes: At about midday, in the cell, sewage started to rise from the drain under the sink and half of the cell floor was flooded straight away. By the evening, the whole floor was covered in a layer of sewerage. It was impossible to walk on the floor and we were forced to move around the cell by climbing on the beds like monkeys. For almost a year, they tried to make him sign a false confession to say he’d stolen the money but Sergei wouldn’t budge. In Russia, a person can only be held in pre-trial detention for a year.
BILL BROWDER: They were faced with a terrible dilemma, which was that either they would put him on trial and then he would then tell the whole story to the whole world about why he was arrested, the tax rebate fraud. Alternatively, they could let him go, but then all of a sudden, so they have to figure out how to justify their fraud in another way... Or they could kill him.
NARRATOR: Which, brutally, they did.
BILL BROWDER: He was my friend. He was my lawyer and he was somebody I greatly admired and he worked for me. And so, if he hadn't worked for me, he'd still be alive today. And so I bear a huge burden of responsibility, of guilt, of regret for his death.
NARRATOR: The next move in this chess game between the Russian state and Bill Browder belonged to the American-born investor. He wanted justice.
BILL BROWDER: I would have thought that they would have put the people who killed him on trial, but they didn’t. They circled the wagons and it became obvious that, if we wanted to get any justice, we were going to have to do it outside of Russia. And that's what I came up with this idea, which was that the people who killed him did it for money. And the money that they did it for, the $230 mn, they don't keep in Russia. They keep it in the west. So I came up with this idea, which was to freeze their assets and ban their visas in the West.
NARRATOR: He took the idea to Washington. It passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate with overwhelming support on both sides. And that became known as the Magnitsky Act and the Magnitsky Act started with just Sergei, but then it was broadened to all human rights abusers in Russia. It became a federal law in the United States on December 14, 2012.
NARRATOR: Since 2013, 18 individuals involved with Sergei’s death have been sanctioned - senior Russian tax officials, members of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, prison officials, and a number of district court judges - all barred from entering and keeping assets in the US. In practical terms, this means no luxury properties, no sending their kids to prestigious schools and colleges. The things very rich people like to do. As you can imagine, Putin was not impressed…
BILL BROWDER: Vladimir Putin went out of his mind. In retaliation, he banned the adoption of Russian orphans by American families and he made repealing the Magnitsky Act the single-largest foreign policy priority, and then they started coming after me. Coming after me with death threats… with kidnapping plots.
NARRATOR: In a desperate and extraordinary attempt to discredit Sergei’s testimony, the Russian state put both of them on trial in 2013 and found them guilty of tax evasion for the $230 mn. Sergei was spared a jail sentence after a Moscow judge acknowledged that he was, in fact, dead. Bill, meanwhile, was sentenced to nine years in absentia to hard labor in a prison camp.
BILL BROWDER: In the history of Russia, they've never put a dead man on trial. And so … it was true, true Kafka. There was a courtroom, and a judge, and a prosecutor, and defense lawyers, and bailiffs, and court reporters, and journalists. In a cage, the normal cage they put defendants in, had two empty chairs. It was a true show trial if there ever was one.
NARRATOR: Even to this day, the Russians are still after Bill.
BILL BROWDER: They've applied to the British government to have me extradited on numerous occasions. They've sued me. They made movies about me and I'm now one of their prime targets, probably the number one foreign enemy of Vladimir Putin.
NARRATOR: In the past nine years, they’ve put out eight Interpol warrants for his arrest. Each time he turns a corner they could be there, waiting.
BILL BROWDER: The other big project that I have going on, in addition to the Magnitsky Act, is figuring out who got the $230 mn and we found some of that money going to Spain to purchase luxury properties. So, the guys who killed Sergei Magnitsky took that money and distributed it, and some of the recipients bought luxury properties in Spain. And so I reported it to the chief anti-corruption prosecutor in Spain, a man named Jose Grinda. He opened the criminal case and invited me to Madrid to provide further evidence.
NARRATOR: Remember, if you’re Bill, nowhere is safe.
BILL BROWDER: At the end of May 2018, I checked into a hotel in central Madrid and the next morning, as I was going to breakfast before my meeting with Prosecutor Grinda, I opened my hotel door. And I'm standing outside the door as the manager of the hotel and two policemen about to knock on the door. And I ask what's going on, and the manager says: ‘Excuse me, but can you give them some sort of identification?’ I put my passport out of my pocket. I handed it over to them. They compare it to a piece of paper they had and they said: ‘You're under arrest.’ And I said: ‘What for?’ And they said: ‘Interpol, Russia.’
NARRATOR: Stop. You know if they take you and hand you over to the Russians you’ve got a 10-year stint in a hard-labor camp, most likely in Siberia. And even more likely, this is just the tip of the iceberg. They’ve been after you for years. You’re their number one enemy. Global superpowers have put sanctions on their billions because of you. They killed your friend for less. The police are waiting for you outside the door while you pack your bags. You’ve got maybe a minute to make a move. How are you going to save yourself?
BILL BROWDER: While I was packing, I tweeted out: ‘Being arrested on a Russian Interpol warrant’ and I then go downstairs with the police. They threw me into the back of the police car. I'm freaking out and thinking: ‘Maybe the people don't believe me on Twitter because anyone could say anything on Twitter.’ And these policemen hadn't confiscated my phone so I surreptitiously took a picture from the back of the police car and tweeted out: ‘In the back of the police car on the way to the police station in the city.’
NARRATOR: The more people know what’s happened to you, the harder it’ll be to cover it up.
BILL BROWDER: This set off a total firestorm where the whole world was just like watching in real-time to see what was going to happen. And probably 100 journalists call Interpol. More called the British government. More called the Spanish government. And I get to the police station and they're all pretty excited. They think they've got some big international fugitive. And you could almost feel the electricity in the air. About an hour into it, I could feel the whole police station deflate, and they came to me shortly thereafter and said: ‘We've just been informed by Interpol that your warrant has been canceled. You're free to go.’
NARRATOR: And breathe.
BILL BROWDER: If I hadn't tweeted it out, if there hadn't been this huge storm of indignation around the world, I might have been sitting in a Spanish jail cell for six months fighting extradition from Russia. And, under the wrong circumstances, I could have been sent back to Russia, and if I had been sent back to Russia I would be killed, just like Sergei Magnitsky.
NARRATOR: Staying visible is Bill’s main survival technique.
BILL BROWDER: It's totally counterintuitive. Most of the advice I've gotten from almost everybody I know is: ‘Keep your head down. Don't poke the bear. Stop doing all this stuff, Bill. It's really dangerous.’ And my response to that is that: ‘No. It's actually much more dangerous to become irrelevant because if you're irrelevant they will kill you and then nobody will care.’ And so, I can't say that they're not going to kill me, or kidnap or arrest me and then kill me, or whatever they're going to do. What I can say is that by continuing to be out in the open about this, they will pay a huge price for doing that.
NARRATOR: So every day Bill is on the radio, on TV, and on podcasts being interviewed or speaking about the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign. The legacy of the bright young Sergei Magnitsky lives on.
BILL BROWDER: After the United States, we went to Canada, which passed their Magnitsky Act, the UK passed the Magnitsky Act. And then perhaps the biggest prize of all was the EU, in December of 2020, passed their Magnitsky Act.
NARRATOR: Japan, Australia, New Zealand have all passed Magnitsky Acts. Thirty-one countries started to sanction foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world. And it isn’t just government officials now… It doesn't just apply to Putin or Russia now. It applies to every dictator, kleptocrat, killer, torturer, concentration camp organizer around the world - and in Sergei's name. And it really is a fitting legacy for the sacrifice that he made. There’s still a lot of work to be done and Bill says he will be pushing for every country to adopt a Magnitsky Act of their own for as long as he lives.
BILL BROWDER: I don't live in a state of fear. That's what they want me to do. It doesn't mean I don't take precautions, doesn't mean I don't do things to mitigate risk. But I don't spend time being afraid and I carry on with my head held high. I say to myself that Sergei was in a much more precarious and dangerous situation, and he stood up to them, and it's my duty to him to stand up to them as well. And I continue to stand up to them regardless of all this awful stuff that they're throwing at me.
NARRATOR: Will the chess game between Vladimir Putin and Bill Browder ever end?
BILL BROWDER: I don't think Vladimir Putin will ever let it go, but Vladimir Putin is a human being like anybody else. I was once invited to a very eccentric collection in Dallas, Texas. There's a very wealthy Texas billionaire who collects statues of fallen dictators and he took me in the garden of fallen dictators on a little tour. And it was the most heartwarming thing I've ever seen because there was dictator after dictator that was no longer a dictator. And what it proved, by definition, is that all these people are human in one way or another. They either die or they get deposed. Nobody lives forever. And nor will Putin.
NARRATOR: Bill Browder. You can delve deeper into the story of Sergei Magnitsky in Bill’s book Red Notice. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another secret operation with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Bill Browder is the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, which was the investment adviser to the largest foreign investment fund in Russia until 2005 when Bill was declared a ‘threat to national security’. When Bill’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, investigated he was arrested. Since then, Bill has spent years fighting for justice for Sergei, campaigning for the US to adopt the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, and lobbying worldwide for similar legislation.