Column: Opposing Putin’s war for kleptocracy

Vladimir Putin fears sanctions that personally target him.
More than 2,000 people are expected to hear from dozens of diplomats, professors, military professionals and journalists on 31 panels at this year’s  St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. [File photo from 2018 conference by Denis Thuin]
More than 2,000 people are expected to hear from dozens of diplomats, professors, military professionals and journalists on 31 panels at this year’s St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. [File photo from 2018 conference by Denis Thuin]
Published February 8

Editor’s note: The author will speak at the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs Tuesday night through Friday. Click for more details.

By Jamison Firestone

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

Two and a half years ago I accidentally caused a Russian lawyer to walk into Trump Tower. It started with the murder of my law partner Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow in 2009. Sergei discovered a group of Russian officials who stole $230 million from the Russian Treasury. Sergei blew the whistle on the crime. Instead of hailing him as a hero, the Putin-Medvedev regime had him arrested. Sergei was held for almost a year without trial, beaten, handcuffed to a bed in an empty cell and left to die. For the next 10 years a group of Sergei’s colleagues headed by William Browder, once Russia’s largest foreign investor, has been exposing the crime and tracing the money.

We expected the stolen money to go to people we knew were involved in the crime, and it did. But it also went to people we had never heard of. Money went to the wife of a deputy mayor of Moscow. Money went to a company owned by a cellist who is a very close friend of President Vladimir Putin. More than $2 billion came to that company from different sources. Some money also went to a company called Prevezon, owned by the son of a Moscow Region official who had the poor judgment to invest stolen money in the United States.

Whenever we find evidence of crimes we report it to the Russian government, and the Putin regime always does the same thing. It refuses to investigate its officials, and it opens a criminal case against us. Seven times it has asked Interpol to arrest Mr. Browder so that he can be extradited to Russia and face “Russian justice.” Thankfully Interpol refused. It’s all very logical. As Putin sees it, his Treasury’s money is where it’s supposed to be, in the hands of his officials.

After a while we realized there would be no justice for Sergei in Russia. So we launched an international effort to sanction the people who stole this money and who murdered Sergei. Those sanctions were then expanded to include human rights abusers and corrupt people from any country. Magnitsky Act sanctions were enacted first in the United States and now by countries around the world. They bar sanctioned individuals from traveling to our countries and subject their assets to confiscation. Mr. Putin was so furious at the United States for adopting the sanctions that he banned Americans from adopting Russian children. Russian orphans, about 4,000 a year, often with terrible disabilities, were the only thing Americans were taking from Russia. To punish the United States, Putin condemned thousands of Russia’s most helpless children to lives without loving families and to neglect and poverty.

In addition to promoting sanctions, our group aids governments in taking the stolen money from the people who got it. When we saw the money being laundered in New York, we alerted the U.S. government, which brought suit. Prevezon called in its lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. She didn’t just defend Prevezon. She set up a lobbying group in Washington for the restoration of Americans’ rights to adopt Russian children. Except that wasn’t what it did. It covertly lobbied to repeal the Magnitsky sanctions. It was Veselnitskaya who walked into Trump Tower and offered dirt on Hillary Clinton and a deal: Repeal the Magnitsky Sanctions and Russian-American relations will be great! You can even adopt our kids again! So, we would give crooks and human rights abusers access to the United States and, in exchange, get great relations with Russia. What a deal!

In the Prevezon case, the U.S. government wrote the Russian government asking for information. The Russian government replied: We investigated. The Russian official in question is innocent, the money was stolen by Magnitsky and Browder. The United States had different information, and Prevezon paid $5.9 million to settle the case. Afterward we learned that the Russian government’s response had been secretly drafted by Veselnitskaya. The Russian government had forwarded the U.S. request for information about stolen Russian government money to… the defence lawyer of the Russian officials who received the money. It was just another attempt to protect its officials and blame the victims.

At Trump Tower and in the Prevezon case the Russian government tipped its hand. Preserving its officials’ ability to enjoy their stolen money is a top priority. Putin fears sanctions that personally target him and those who steal with him. Now that it’s clear what he fears, what are we waiting for? If we want Putin to start behaving, sanctioning his corrupt officials and oligarchs will get his undivided attention.

Jamison Firestone is a human rights and anti-corruption lawyer.