Activist fund manager turned Kremlin foe Bill Browder is urging Ireland to revive a Magnitsky Act targeting corrupt Russian officials due to its vulnerability as the “soft underbelly” of US tech multinationals.
Browder, head of investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, is spearheading a global campaign to expose corruption and punish Russian officials he blames for the 2009 death in a Moscow prison of Sergei Magnitsky, who he employed as a lawyer.
“Ireland is the soft underbelly of the tech industry because they have access to Facebook, Google and Apple without the national security overlay in America, where they are under more scrutiny by US intelligence services,” Browder, (53), told bne IntelliNews in an interview.
A report by the Sunday Times on March 10 suggested Russian intelligence networks have increased their activity in Ireland to spy on companies involved in the technology sphere. Ireland is home to the European headquarters of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Apple due to its low corporate tax and easy access to the EU market.
“The Putin regime has literally a thousand different projects going with an unlimited budget to disrupt democracy in the west and it wouldn’t surprise me if they are active [in Ireland],” said Browder. “They run a thousand initiatives with the expectations that 995 will fail.”
Browder, whose firm was once the biggest foreign portfolio investor in Russia with $4.5bn in assets until his expulsion from Russia, has successfully lobbied the US Congress, along with five other countries, to pass legislation freezing assets and denying visas to Russian officials allegedly involved in the Magnitsky case.
US-born Browder, who spends more time on activism these days than managing money, said he is concerned by recent research by Trinity College Dublin that 125 Russian-linked companies have raised €103bn `through the IFSC since 2007.
“The main issue is that there are a lot of people in Ireland who are doing the Russians’ bidding and who are feeding at the trough servicing Russian money,” he said. “We have the same problem in the UK where we have accountants, lawyers, estate agents, restaurateurs, jewellery sales people and others who are wholly surviving off the crumbs of Russian oligarchs’ table.”
UK Prime Minister Theresa May said last week Britain would introduce legislation similar to the US Magnitsky Act as part of its response against Russia following the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. May told the House of Commons that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary said on Sunday, that the UK would pursue Russians with corrupt wealth held in the UK. His comments followed reports that the government was set to follow up the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats with targeted financial measures.
US-born Browder said he would “come over to Ireland in a flash” if he could find enough political backing to pass a Magnitsky act.
Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 after raising the alarm over a $230mn tax fraud committed by Russian government officials. In a testimony this month to the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport committee, Browder said that Magnitsky had been tortured and killed “by eight riot guards with rubber batons” in 2009.
The Magnitsky Acts works on the principle that Russian fraudsters make their money at home and then spend and invest their ill-gotten gains in the West. The acts seek to deliver justice where the Russian courts have failed, through visa bans and the freezing of property, yachts and bank accounts.
Plans to introduce an Irish Magnitsky bill were scuppered in 2013 after Russia threatened to block Irish citizens from adopting Russian orphans. In a letter dated March 11, 2013, then Russian Ambassador Maxim Peshkov warned that pursuing Magnitsky legislation would “not enrich Russian-Irish bilateral relations and can have negative influence on the negotiations on the Adoption Agreement between Russia and Ireland.”
Russia had been the most popular foreign country from which Irish people adopted children with hundreds of orphans adopted there. American citizens were subsequently banned from adopted Russian orphans following the introduction of a US Magnitsky law in a controversial tit-for-tat measure.
Browder had been invited to come to Ireland in 2013 after meeting and discussing his campaign with then Senator Jim Walsh at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
“I came to Ireland on a mission to try to get the parliamentary committee of the Dail to introduce a Magnitsky bill and it was extraordinary how much support I had,” he said. “Ireland is very similar to the US and the UK in terms of right and wrong, good and evil and it was an easy pitch to get a parliamentary resolution calling on the government to do it.”
During his testimony to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, Browder said two FSB agents were observed in the gallery. “When the gallery emptied of all the Amnesty International supporters, there were two people left in the gallery and they were FSB agents,” he said. “Someone caught them speaking Russian in the lobby afterwards.”
Browder returned to Dublin for a second time in 2013 to finalise details for the legislation, but the campaign floundered.
“There was a number of adoptions in process at the time and a number of parliamentarians didn’t want to go ahead and the initiative failed,” he said “It was the one and only time that Russian intimidated a country into not doing a Magnitsky Act.
Walsh said there had been cross-party support for introducing such a bill but the government, led by then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, had gotten cold feet due to fears about economic repercussions.
“It really is an important human rights matter and we should stand up and be counted,” said Walsh. “We should have a better chance succeeding now considering the appalling events that we have seen in the UK.”
If the UK passes a Magnitsky Act, Browder said it could be timely for Irish politicians to revisit the issue. Browder’s is understood to have reached out last week to MPs from Ireland’s ruling Fine Gael party.
“I haven’t pushed for a Magnitsky Act in Ireland since that whole debacle with our initiative and the Russians counter attack threatening banning Irish adoptions, but perhaps now is a good time to revisit it,” he said.
Browder, who didn’t know Sergei Skripal, said he isn’t taking any additional security measures since the attempted assassination of the former Russian spy.
Earlier this month, Browder told a House of Commons committee that he believes the Kremlin “would like to arrest me, get me back to Russia and then kill me within the control of their own system.”
Russia has several times placed Browder on Interpol’s wanted list, exploiting a loophole that lets countries unilaterally place individuals on its database used to request an arrest.
“I am at Defcon 5 in terms of my security and I have been for a long time and the risk is no greater no less than it was before,” said Browder, who never eats in the same restaurant twice. “They clearly don’t like me.”