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How I became Putin’s number one enemy

by Bill Browder

How do you rebel if you’re born into a family of American communists and academics?

By becoming a capitalist.

And what does it take for that capitalist to change his whole life in a second, to abandon business and high-stakes investment for the life of a human rights campaigner?


In my case, the murder of my principled young tax attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, who in 2009, after a year-long illegal detention in Moscow’s medieval prisons, was beaten to death by eight uniformed prison guards.

Red Notice is my account of those two journeys, starting on the South Side of Chicago and moving through Stanford Business School to the Liar’s Poker world of investment in New York and London in the 1990s, and then on to the Wild East of Moscow, where, in the turbulent years following the Soviet Union’s collapse, everything was up for grabs. It was in Moscow that I hit my stride, making billions for my investors — and losing it, and making it back — as I hunted out undervalued assets and battled some of the oligarchs who had stolen much of Russia’s assets. For a long time I was unwittingly useful to Putin, as he too fought the oligarchs in order to consolidate his power. But then, quite suddenly, Putin achieved his goals, and I was unceremoniously kicked out of Russia in 2005.

I thought I was done with Russia, but Russia was not done with me.

In June 2007 a group of Russian Interior Ministry officials, in partnership with the Russian mafia, raided my offices in Moscow and seized our company’s seals and registration documents, using them in an elaborate fraud scheme to steal $230 million of taxes from the Russian treasury which we had paid the year before.

In the wake of these crimes I hired Sergei Magnitsky, a 36 year-old Russian lawyer, to investigate. Sergei uncovered the whole criminal enterprise and testified against the state officials involved in the fraud. In retaliation, these very same officials had him arrested and imprisoned without trial. While in pre-trial detention, he was systematically tortured in an attempt to force him to retract his testimony, but despite the physical and psychological pain he endured, he refused to perjure himself. Over the following year, Sergei suffered such horrifying detention conditions that his health completely broke down. Despite filing over twenty requests to get medical attention, he was denied any medical assistance. He died on 16 November 2009 at the age of 37, leaving behind a wife and two children. The Wall Street Journal described his death as a “slow assassination.”

To this day, Sergei’s killing has remained uninvestigated and unpunished. Instead, all the officials involved have been promoted and many of them have received state honors. Because of the impunity in Russia, I have spent the last 6 years conducting an international campaign to impose travel sanctions and asset freezes, outside of Russia, on the officials who played a role in Sergei’s false arrest, torture, and death. This brought my fight to the US Congress, where against all odds, the ‘Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act’ was signed into US law by President Obama in December 2012, imposing visa bans and asset freezes on Russian government officials involved in human rights abuses.

Vladimir Putin has reacted with fury, going so far as to put Sergei and me on trial for “tax evasion.” This is the first trial of a dead man in Russian history – even during the Stalin show trials, Russia didn’t have the depravity to try the dead. In another sickening twist, he has also banned the adoption of Russian orphans into American families, quite literally killing his own orphans in order to protect his corrupt officials.

On a personal level, I have been the recipient of death threats, kidnapping threats, and a politically motivated Interpol Red Notice. However, despite the inherent dangers, my justice campaign for Sergei Magnitsky continues. Red Notice is the latest element of this campaign. The world needs to know what happened to Sergei Magnitsky. Red Notice exposes how the Russian government has become a criminal enterprise with all the powers of the state, and with Putin at the helm there is no limit to the depth of depravity of the regime.

I have to assume that there is a very real chance that Putin or members of his regime will have me killed someday. Like anyone else, I have no death wish and I have no intention of letting them kill me. I can’t mention most of the countermeasures I take, but I will mention one: this book. If I’m killed, you will know who did it. When my enemies read this book, they will know that you know. So if you sympathize with the search for justice, or with Sergei’s tragic fate, please read this book, and share this story with as many people as you can. That simple act will keep the spirit of Sergei Magnitsky alive and go further than any army of bodyguards in keeping me safe.

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