Bill Browder, an American-born international financier living in London, became an accidental human rights activist when the Russian government he invested in turned against him.
The CEO and founder of Hermitage Capital Management, Browder discussed his time in Russia, growing his investment empire and the downfall of Moscow’s branch of Hermitage Capital during a presentation at SMU on Feb. 5 as part of the Tate Lecture Series.
Browder said that as an employee of Solomon Brothers in the early 1990s, he was sent to Moscow with $25 million to invest in Russian business.
By 1996 he left Solomon Brothers to open Hermitage Capital and by 1997, “I was the best performing front manager in the world,” he said.
By 31, Browder said, he was featured in prominent business publications and traveled the world with clients.
Browder described how, in 1998, Russia ran into problems. They began defaulting on their domestic debt and devalued their currency by 75 percent.
“My billion dollars went down 90 percent,” he said. “I lost $900 million dollars of my clients’ money,” an event Browder described as humiliating.
In 2005, Browder said he was held in detention while trying to return to Russia and then deported. The Russian government began taking money from businesses and eventually took money from Hermitage Capital. He hired lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered more than $230 million in tax fraud by the Russian oligarchs. Russian officials stormed Hermitage Capital, seized company documents and then claimed ownership.
While Magnitsky attempted to bring this case to trial in 2008, Browder said Magnitsky was arrested for the very same crime he investigated.
For 11 months, he sat in prison, held without bail. He was abused, did not receive medical attention and died in prison. Browder was convicted, in absentia, by a Russian court and sentenced to nine years for allegedly participating in the same crime. He described Magnitsky as “the bravest man I’ve ever known.”
In the aftermath, Browder went before the U.S. Congress, after meeting with the late Sen. John McCain, and proposed the human rights bill that would be named for his attorney. The Magnitsky Act, signed by former President Barack Obama in 2012, put sanctions against some 49 to 80 Russian officials who were believed to be involved in Magnitsky’s death.
Browder said that the act not only prohibited them from entering the U.S., but froze the account holding the $230 million. In retaliation, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed a law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian children.
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act was an expanded version of the law that extended human rights violations beyond Russia. According to The Associated Press (AP), some lawmakers think the law doesn’t go far enough.
At issue is the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2, 2018. According to AP, a bipartisan group of 22 members of the Senate called for an investigation into Khashoggi’s death and whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible. Four months later, the senators had still not received a report from the Trump administration determining who was responsible.
On Feb. 13, more than four months after Khashoggi’s death, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the embassy in Budapest that, “America is not covering up for a murder.”
At the close of the lecture, Browder said Putin “needs to stay in office.” Otherwise, he may face criminal charges if a new president of Russia is elected.