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Is the EU kowtowing to the Kremlin on Magnitsky?

Teri Schultz
November 12, 2018

Bill Browder has spent nine years campaigning to punish Russian officials responsible for killing his friend Sergei Magnitsky. He hopes Moscow's increased aggression will convince Europe it's time to act.

A woman holds a placard with a portrait of Sergei Magnitsky during an unauthorised rally in central Moscow December 15, 2012. Russian riot police detained four opposition leaders on Saturday to stop them taking part in a banned rally against President Vladimir Putin in front of the former KGB security police's headquarters in Moscow. The placard reads "Dead in fight against the system of thievery". REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Image: Reuters

Bill Browder lists a handful of events he believes should amount to more than enough reasons for the European Union to crack down on Kremlin abuse of human rights: the Skripal case, the downing of MH17, Oleg Sentsov's imprisonment, the annexation of Crimea. "To get anything to happen in the EU," Browder said drily, "requires power and leverage and force and shame." Browder is personally trying to provide, at the very least, the shame.

Browder's Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in 2009 in a Moscow prison where he was incarcerated while investigating authorities' involvement in a €202 million ($230 million) tax fraud. By 2012, Browder had shepherded through the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act in the United States, which blacklisted Russian officials deemed responsible for Magnitsky's death, applying asset freezes and visa bans. That became the "Global Magnitsky Act" in 2016, expanding  its reach to human-rights offenders worldwide.

Bill Browder
Browder has been urging EU leaders to adopt human-rights sanctionsImage: Vadim Kleiner

Browder has been trying to get the EU to mirror that legislation, and even after running up against the same obstacles for almost a decade, he is still incredulous it hasn't happened. "The EU has legislation for putting people responsible for chemical weapons on lists, people responsible for political invasions," Browder told DW. "And, as we know, we're living in a world of massive human rights violations taking place every day everywhere."

Support from EU lawmakers, but not policymakers

In 2014, the European Parliament overwhelmingly supported calling on the European Commission to introduce an EU Magnitsky act, an unheeded request the EP reissued last year to European Council President Donald Tusk and foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who have not moved the dossier forward.

Browder decided to lobby European capitals directly; the UK, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all gone ahead with their own national Magnitsky acts, as has Canada. He believes Denmark, France and Sweden are among those on track to follow.

In the meantime, Browder himself has become a victim of Russian President Vladimir Putin's brutal treatment of critics. His 2015 book Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy explains his transformation from hedge-fund manager to human-rights activist. Putin has tried to use Interpol multiple times to get Browder sent back to Russia, where he lived for a decade until being deported in 2005.

Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky
Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was killed in prison while investigating massive tax fraudImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Browder denies living in "fear," but he does live on alert, watching for anything that might indicate Kremlin operatives are nearby, perhaps implementing a kidnap plot the US government has warned him was afloat.

Dutch caveat

Finally Browder has what he calls a "glimmer of hope" for his cause at the EU level. On November 20, the Dutch government will host talks with all member states aimed at establishing an EU sanctions regime for human rights violations.

However, the initiative doesn't feel like success to him: The Dutch proposal is for a "global human rights sanctions regime," not a Magnitsky act. Browder is incensed, alleging capitulation to Moscow. This week he will testify to the Dutch parliament's foreign affairs committee on why it's crucial to keep Magnitsky's name on the bill.

"It's like deleting Sakharov's name or Mandela's name because that upset Russia or South Africa," he said. "It's ridiculous. Sergei Magnitsky, whose name is on six pieces of legislation — it's been his sacrifice, his murder that led to this entire movement. And now  the Dutch want to just delete it. That's just offensive."

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Andrew Stroehlein from Human Rights Watch shared his disappointment in a tweet to the Dutch government. "Not really off to a great start if an effort to sanction human rights abusers is renamed in order to please a human rights abuser," Stroehlein wrote.

US: Magnitsky Act fights Russian 'danger'

US State Department sanctions expert David Tessler, in Brussels to urge the EU to maintain and even strengthen sanctions on Russia, also urged the EU to finally move forward. "We think it would be good idea," he said. "We know Europe feels very strongly about protecting human rights, and we want to be supportive however we can. We think it would be a powerful step for Europe to take."

Tessler called the Russian threat a "real and present danger" that will require increasing the political cost for the Kremlin through measures like Magnitsky. Tessler wouldn't comment on suggestions the US should use its Global Magnitsky Act against those Saudi citizens known to have participated in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month.

But Helmut Scholz, a German member of the European Parliament from the Left party, told DW he doesn't believe the use of sanctions, through a Magnitsky act or otherwise, is the best way to change Russian behavior. "I do not think much of the fact that the European Union is showing off itself as the 'democracy teacher' towards other countries when we ourselves are not able to adhere to certain principles, values and standards," Scholz said.

He and Bill Browder may be in agreement on the question of the EU's right to moral superiority. "On one hand you have the European Parliament, which represents the will of the people of Europe, unanimously calling for an EU Magnitsky act," Browder pointed out. "And then you have Federica Mogherini, a person who was appointed in a non-transparent process with no democratic representation, saying, 'No, I don't think it's a good idea.'"

With no deadline, it's not dead

Still, Browder says he's certain there will be an EU Magnitsky act. He won't guess at a timeline, so it won't frustrate him if it takes longer than he hopes. "I will succeed because I care about [getting] it more than the people who don't want it to happen care about it not happening," he said, laughing at his own complicated phrasing. "I'm going to get justice for Sergei Magnitsky, to make these people in Russia who participated in that crime and who participated in the cover-up pay dearly for what they did."

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