By Henry Johnson, Foreign Policy Magazine, June 10, 2016 (with further, related readings below)
A hedge-fund manager’s reputation, U.S. sanctions targeting human rights violations in Russia, and the truth about how Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer caught up in a $230 million dispute, wound up dead. So the story goes in Andrei Nekrasov’s new documentary, ‘The Magnitsky Act’ — a film that’s been pulled thrice by European theaters and broadcasters who bent to legal pressure from the man it seeks to expose as a fraud.
Next Monday, the Russian-born Nekrasov will finally get his chance to premiere it at the Newseum, a journalism history museum in Washington. Nekrasov is showing it to a private audience whose invitees include congressional staffers, State Department employees, members of the White House National Security Council, and journalists. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh will moderate the screening.
The film centers on Sergei Magnitsky, who human rights activists believe was murdered in 2009 after accusing the Russian police of stealing an estimated $230 million from the state treasury.
But according to Nekrasov, that narrative is wrong. By his telling, Russian authorities were the victims of a massive theft, not the perpetrators. The film, he told Foreign Policy in a telephone interview, provides strong circumstantial evidence that Magnitsky’s boss, Bill Browder, was possibly involved in the multimillion dollar theft from Russian taxpayers.
Sonya Gavankar, the Newseum’s manager of public relations, told FP in an email that the museum would screen the film despite a letter from Browder’s lawyers demanding that it be cancelled.
Browder was one of the first Westerners to cash in on the fall of communism in Russia, starting Hermitage Capital Management in 1996 with just $25 million in seed capital. Within a few years, he became the largest investor in Russia, at one point managing $4.5 billion in capital, and staying on Moscow’s good side by vocally supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
His riches-to-super riches story came to an abrupt end, however, in November 2005, when Russia blacklisted Browder as a threat to national security for auditing the companies he invested in and leaking details of insider trading and corruption to the press. A year-and-a-half later, police officers raided his firm’s office in Moscow and confiscated paperwork.
Here’s where the accounts diverge: Browder says the police then stole three of his holding companies and used them to claim a $230 million tax rebate; Nekrasov, who previously directed films critical of the Kremlin, argues that authorities were investigating Hermitage Capital over legitimate concerns about large-scale tax evasion.
“I can prove in court that Browder is not telling the truth,” Nekrasov told FP in an interview from Berlin.
His accusation, stunning if true, has alienated friends, enraged Browder, and threatens to tarnish the director’s well-respected career.
It would also undermine the narrative behind the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law passed in 2012 to punish those responsible for the tax lawyer’s arrest, torture, and death in custody. It allows the United States to withhold visas and freeze financial assets of Russian officials involved Magnitsky’s death and other human rights abuses. In retaliation, Moscow banned U.S. adoptions of Russian babies.
Nekrasov told FP he set out to make a film based on Browder’s story that would be “a docu-drama praising Magnitsky.” Instead, he says close to two years of research led him to conclude that the conventional narrative was false. He said funding for the film came exclusively from mainstream western European organizations.
Nekrasov’s film documents how he went from trusting Browder’s word to disbelieving it. The director says he began to doubt the hedge fund manager after reading the actual police reports, in Russian. For example, Nekrasov argues that Magnitsky’s first contact with the police was not a voluntary act of whistleblowing, as Browder maintains, but a record of the police questioning him as a key witness in a tax evasion investigation.
Among Russian activists, Nekrasov said, Magnitsky is seen as a hero and Browder as truthsayer. Any revelation that sullies them could be a bitter pill to swallow.
“The worst criticism comes from my Russian friends,” he said. “Most of my friends are completely pro-Browder, and Putin doesn’t have any influence over them. I became like a traitor.”
Browder has thwarted Nekrasov’s previous attempts to show the film with threats of legal action. The first time, he intervened at the last minute to stop Nekrasov, with Blu-ray disc in hand, from showing it to an audience of European Union parliamentarians at the their headquarters in Brussels.
Around the time of that planned screening, Magnitsky’s mother and widow denounced Nekrasov’s film in a joint letter to the European Parliament. Browder’s lawyers also have sent letters threatening to sue the producers and venues that have tried to screen the film, according to Nekrasov.
In a phone call with FP, Browder said he would pursue legal action against the Newseum if he perceived it as backing the movie “in any way.”
“They’re on record now for knowing the libel,” he said, referring to a list of supporting evidence he gave to the Newseum.
“We’ve explained to them that this movie is a fraud and that it contains false information, so if they continue to support it then they’re disseminating this false narrative,” Browder said. “They have a choice. They can stop it.”
Magnitsky’s widow and mother have asked the Newseum to shut down the program. On Thursday, they sent a letter to the board of trustees urging them to “stop an evil and vindictive attack on our deceased husband and son.”
Browder and Magnitsky’s family believe that a Russian implicated in the tax fraud is funding the screening at the Newseum.
Browder said he has evidence that Denis Katsyv, a Russian national under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for taking some of the $230 million, is funding the Potomac Square Group to rent out the room at the Newseum. The Potomac Square Group, a public relations firm in Washington, is also representing Nekrasov.
“This has nothing to do with free speech. It has to do with laying out false information by alleged Russian gangsters who are currently under investigation and being sued by Department of Justice,” Browder said.
In an email to FP, Christopher Cooper, a partner at the Potomac Square Group, denied Browder’s allegation that he was representing Katsyv’s company.
Nekrasov also denied knowledge of this arrangement and said he’d “be very curious to see what this evidence is,” though he did admit to knowing Katsyv.
Nekrasov told FP that his experience dealing with Browder “has been a bit depressing, to be frank.”
“What I discovered is how easy it is — if you have a lot of money — to basically gag somebody,” Nekrasov said
Note by New Cold War.org:
 Bill Browder came to Canada in February 2016 on a promotion tour for adoption of a Canadian law similar to the U.S. ‘Magnitsky Act’ which was adopted by the U.S. Congress in December 2012 and which imposes economic sanctions on selected Russian government and business leaders. Browder was given a hero’s welcome in the Canadian Parliament and in Canada’s corporate media. Here is a 25 minute interview on February 22, 2016 with Browder on one of CBC Radio One’s flagship newmagazine programs, the weekday The Current.
Browder’s visit was crafted to pressure recalcitrant Liberal Party members of Parliament to adopt a ‘Magnitsky act’ in Canada. The Liberals won the Oct 19, 2015 federal election, replacing the Stephen-Harper-led Conservatives. Conservative MPs had been spearheading the effort for such an act. Browder used his Canadian visit to argue in general against any relaxation of the sanctions or diplomatic freezing imposed against Russia and Crimea following the March 15, 2014 referendum vote in Crimea to secede from Ukraine.
A veteran journalist of the Globe and Mail national daily reports on June 14 that hawkish Liberal Party MPs are pressing their government to step up anti-Russia sanctions along the lines of the U.S. Magnitsky Act. Coincidence: the Globe and Mail has opted not to report in any way on Andrei Nekrasov’s documentary film ‘The Magnitsky Act’.
Global Magnitsky legislation clears another hurdle in U.S. Senate, Radio Free Europe, June 14, 2016
The Magnitsky case – A trial at last?, by Alexander Mercouris, Russia Insider, Jan 20, 2016
Controversial Magnitsky film set for Washington screening, Radio Free Europe, June 8, 2016
Film about Russian lawyer’s death creates an uproar
WASHINGTON — Six years after his mysterious death in a Moscow prison cell, Sergei L. Magnitsky has become a byword for brutality in President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia. Now, a documentary film that paints Mr. Magnitsky as an accomplice rather than a victim is generating a furor, with critics trying to block a screening of it next week in Washington.
Screenings of the film, ‘The Magnitsky Act — Behind the Scenes’, have been canceled in Europe after threats of libel suits from William F. Browder, an American-born financier who fell afoul of the Russian government and hired Mr. Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor, to investigate a vast tax fraud scheme after the government seized three of his Russian subsidiaries.
‘The Magnitsky Act’ is to be screened on Monday at the Newseum, a private museum dedicated to the news industry. Lawyers for Mr. Browder and Mr. Magnitsky’s mother, Natalia Magnitskaya, sent a letter to the Newseum this week demanding that it call off the event. After a conference call on Thursday, the museum’s management refused.
“We stand for free speech and free expression,” said Scott Williams, the chief operating officer of the Newseum. “We’re not going to allow them not to show the film.” He noted that the museum was not sponsoring the screening, but merely renting out its theater. “We often have people renting for events that other people would love not to have happen,” he said.
Mr. Browder, who lives in London, has accused the film’s director, Andrei Nekrasov, of defaming him and smearing the memory of Mr. Magnitsky. The film asserts that the widely accepted version of Mr. Magnitsky’s death is wrong: that the police did not beat him before he died, and that he did not testify that the police had conspired to steal $230 million in fraudulent tax rebates. Indeed, the film says it was Mr. Browder who orchestrated the fraud.
The legacy of Mr. Magnitsky, who was 37 at the time of his death, is complicated because he has become such a potent symbol. In 2012, Congress passed a law bearing his name that blacklisted Russian officials involved in human-rights abuses. The Kremlin retaliated by imposing sanctions on several American citizens and banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
Lawmakers are now trying to pass legislation that would impose sanctions on people anywhere in the world for the kinds of human-rights abuses that surfaced in the Magnitsky case. Much to the frustration of the Russian government, the bill would again bear his name. A screening at the Newseum is especially controversial because it could attract lawmakers or their aides. The cavernous museum, which sits on Pennsylvania Avenue in the shadow of the Capitol, has the text of the First Amendment etched above its main entrance.
Mr. Nekrasov is an experienced documentary maker whose work has sometimes been critical of the Russian government. He made films about the Russian crackdown in Chechnya and the poisoning of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former intelligence officer.
Speaking from Berlin, Mr. Nekrasov said he had not begun the project intending to undermine the account of Mr. Magnitsky’s death. He said that he viewed it more as a docudrama about Mr. Magnitsky’s last days, and that he had consulted Mr. Browder, whom he envisioned as the film’s narrator. But as he began scrutinizing original documents in the case, Mr. Nekrasov said, he began to doubt Mr. Browder’s version of events.
“It’s difficult to pin down the moment when I thought it was a lie, it’s a made-up story,” he said. One clue, he said, was that “there was no sign of whistle-blowing” on the part of Mr. Magnitsky.
People familiar with the Magnitsky case expressed doubt that he was in on a conspiracy. “When I was in the government,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former United States ambassador to Russia, “we studied closely his tragic case and had a radically different assessment.”
In April, a screening of the film at the European Parliament was called off at the last minute after lawyers for Mr. Browder threatened legal action. The British law firm Carter-Ruck also sent a letter to Arte, a German-French television network that planned to broadcast the film.
In the United States, Mr. Nekrasov has retained the Potomac Square Group, a small public affairs and lobbying firm that has worked for Bahrain, Kuwait and Azerbaijan, among other foreign governments. It is run by Christopher Cooper, a former Wall Street Journal reporter. Mr. Cooper rented the theater in the Newseum and declined to say who was paying his company. “I’m putting this event together for the director,” he said.
Mr. Cooper said there would be a question-and-answer session with Mr. Nekrasov, moderated by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after the screening. The organizers considered inviting Mr. Browder to take part in the session, Mr. Cooper said, and might still do so.
Mr. Browder did not return requests for comment. But he has spoken out in the past against the film, calling it “a calculated attempt to harm our campaign and to make people doubt the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky.”
Lawyers for Mr. Browder have presented substantial documentary evidence, including photographs, that Mr. Magnitsky was beaten in his jail cell. They also cite transcripts of testimony in which he named police officers as being involved in the tax fraud.
That Mr. Magnitsky was mistreated in jail is hardly in dispute. The Russian authorities initially claimed he had died from sudden heart failure. But after persistent questions, Russia’s then-president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, ordered prosecutors to open an investigation.
In 2011, a human rights panel that advised Mr. Medvedev issued a report concluding that Mr. Magnitsky had been beaten. His health issues went untreated for the 11 months he was in custody. The report said that investigators and prison officials shared responsibility for his death.
Mr. Browder was once the largest foreign investor in Russia’s stock market. He defended Mr. Putin, and in 2005, he told a reporter that the newly elected president of Ukraine, Viktor A. Yushchenko, needed to cultivate closer ties with Russia. Since he was expelled from Russia, however, Mr. Browder has become a fierce crusader against official corruption there.
Last year, he published a book, ‘Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice’, that delved into the circumstances of Mr. Magnitsky’s death.