Canada’s Magnitsky Act received Royal Assent today. Some may wonder just what all the fuss is about, especially if they haven’t been following this case. I will do my best to explain in general terms for a broad audience (which is of course who this site has always been geared to).
Bill Browder was once one of Russia’s largest foreign investors. He was involved in investing in Russia’s lucrative oil industry. Browder found the identity of his investment fund stolen in order for the thieves to commit a large scale tax fraud in Russia. Browder hired lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to investigate. Browder had at one point thought that the regime of Vladimir Putin was different than Boris Yeltsin’s who allowed corruption and mafia influence to run rampant in government. In the early days of his investing, Browder went on an anti-corruption campaign exposing oligarchs who were stealing money from the companies he invested in, and initially Putin backed him, but only to stenegthen his own power. That backing ended when Putin arrested the biggest oligarch, the head of Russia’s gas company Gazprom,Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It was a message to others to fall in line and back Putin and also to share the wealth with kickback schemes that Browder has estimated to have netted Putin 200 billion dollars. When the identity of Browder’s company was stolen and charged with tax fraud, Magnitsky uncovered the entire scheme that implicated police and a number of officials in the Russian government. Browder and Magnitsky thought that if they presented their evidence to authorities, Putin being a nationalist, would clean this up. What they found was that there are no good guys in Putin’s Russia. Magnitsky was jailed, by the same police officers he testified against, and tortured. But as Browder has described, perhaps the Russians thought the Starbucks drinking lawyer would cave and recant, but he had principles and he refused. He was killed in jail, at the age of 37, a father to two young children.
Browder now in exile from Russia, went to the US. The oligarchs engaged in criminal activity on behalf of the Kremlin kept the money the government paid them outside of the country, in places like the US and elsewhere, using it for boarding school for their kids, lavish gifts for girlfriends and so on. Browder asked the Senate leaders in the US if there was anything that could be done to target the individuals responsible for Magnitsky’s death and those that commit atrocities at the behest of the Kremlin for money. The result was the Magnitsky Act which banned visas for travel and the individuals assets. The Act was expanded to a global act in 2016. Browder uncovered Putin’s role in the kickback and tax schemes in the Panama Papers.The top investigator in the Panama Papers story Daphne Caruana was recently killed in a car bomb. Putin attempted to retaliate against the US for the Act by ending a practice where Americans adopted Russian children with a number of health problems from Down Syndrome to Spina bifida. It was beneficial to Russia because the state didn’t provide adequate funding for their needs. His ending of the adoption led to widespread protests in Russia, from doctors, teachers, people from diverse segments of society. Putin blamed Obama and Clinton for the protests. The Russian support for Trump plays into this story in that Trump afforded the Russians an opportunity to get rid of the Magnitsky Act. Browder has revealed that the lawyer that met Donald Trump Jr. in he summer of 2016, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was specifically sent to the US to engage in a campaign to get the Magnitsky Act repealed. Putin wants it gone for a very simple reason, his personal money is affected. Browder states that Trump and Trump Jr.’s statement that the meeting was about “adoptions” should be understood as code for sanctions. While the initial and primary goal of Putin is to get rid of the Act, sowing disorder and chaos in the West would still suit the overall goal of breaking up US alliances and destabilizing its main adversary. Russia has backed everything from far right ideologues to groups protesting violence against blacks by police in the US, to also interfering in US elections. This is to say nothing of its actions in Ukraine. The result is that Russia today remains one of the most serious threats the West has faced since the days of the Cold War.
The Canadian Magnitsky Act sends the message that Canada is with its allies in condemning human rights abuses by Russian officials and a tribute to a man of principle that sought to do the right thing, and paid the ultimate price.
For more see these interviews with Browder:
CNN interview link on the Trump Jr. meeting: