By David Michael Newstead.
War crimes investigator David Crane returns to discuss the conflict in Syria, proposed human rights laws in the United States, and the impact of populist elections around the world.
David Newstead: How do you think this wave of populist elections around the world will impact international law and human rights?
David Crane: The honest answer is, I don’t know. One could certainly seem to think that it is not going to augur well for the future. However, that just remains to be seen. I would hope that we could at least keep where we are as opposed to taking steps back. But frankly, I am not confident. This is a clarion call for all of us to work harder, particularly in the public relations realm, to keep the concept of seeking justice for people who are oppressed in some kind of light so that it just doesn’t disappear back into the shadows as it was before the early 1990s.
David Newstead: Human rights laws like the original Magnitsky Act were bipartisan pieces of legislation and had strong Republican support. Do you see any hope for the expanded version of the Magnitsky Act or the Caesar Act in either the Republican controlled Congress or the Trump administration?
David Crane: I helped draft the Magnitsky Act and had testified on the Caesar Act before the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier in the summer. You know, it’s interesting. It’s kind of a bellwether as to what the sense of Congress is at least right now. The other week, the Caesar Act passed on a voice vote in the House, which was a positive sign.
I’m not so sure about the Senate. I don’t have as good a read on it as I do in the House. I’m very good friends with Congressmen Ed Royce and Chris Smith, two champions of human rights who have worked with me since 2002 when I was doing my work in West Africa. I just don’t think it has the sense of urgency in the Senate that it does in the House. I’m not confident, though I could be surprised, that this is going to move forward. It has to move forward now obviously or it will not see the light of day. And I can’t see within the next year anything like a Caesar Act working its way through a Trump Administration.
I could be wrong, but I’m just not sure. I don’t think the new President-elect has any interest in this area at this point. Sees no need in it. Sees no political benefit in spending his time and energy on these types of issues. I’m not even sure who his main contact is in this area. If it’s Michael Flynn, then that doesn’t augur well.
To answer your question, it’s really up to the likes of Senators Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell. I’m just not getting a sense that they’re going to spend a lot of time of this. I could be wrong, but we just don’t have that momentum in the Senate that we used to have even when it was bipartisan. People like Senators Pat Leahy and Judd Gregg worked the hallways for these laws and worked together for decades. I’ve worked with them myself on getting international criminal law and human rights legislation through and they’ve been pretty good on it. But you know, I’m just not seeing a lot of momentum in the Senate on this.
David Newstead: If Trump’s recent endorsement of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war is any indication, what kind of human rights policies do you think we can expect?
David Crane: I’ve thought this through a lot. We either have a great moment or a moment of tragedy. For some bizarre reason, we have this moment with Russia that is something that is not comfortable for those of us who are old Cold Warriors, but also just individuals who look at Russia very skeptically for a lot of reasons. What an interesting thing if Trump and Putin actually formed a kind of grand alliance to handle some of the challenges internationally. The method may not be palatable, but the end product may be a solution for Syria, for example.
But I don’t know. This is the first time in a long, long time when everything is new and everything is on the table. No one really has a sense, because it’s a complete paradigm shift. Even all the key players in that crazy town that I lived in and worked in for so many years, all the key contacts and the people that make things happen… They’re no longer in power or even in anybody’s inner circle. We can’t shape, mold, or effect current and future policy, because they’re just not listening. Either the new administration is eventually going to come around, because they’re going to have to or they’re not going to get anything done. Or we’re going to see an amazing series of policy shifts internationally the likes of which we haven’t seen since Harry Truman and the Truman Doctrine.
David Newstead: But a modern rendition of that?
David Crane: Yeah. Whether we like it or not, we’re at a very fascinating and interesting time and both of us in different disciplines are a part of this. And it’s going to be fascinating to see how this evolves. I don’t have a cornerstone by which I can rely on and take my answers to you based on that, because there’s no cornerstones anymore. Everything is being questioned and challenged.
David Newstead: In your view, what’s behind this rise of populism internationally and the “Strong Man” figure common to many of these movements?
David Crane: Yeah, it’s a fascinating thing. This isn’t just a U.S. thing. I mean, it’s happening across all of Western democracies. And it’s that we have just been complacent in our democratic processes. We were just almost prefunctionally moving democracy forward in these countries, which had begun to drift from the general populace from which they are elected. What caused the spark, which started this low-burning bush fire, is the Great Recession. People were directly affected personally: job loss, concern about the future, loss of houses, etc. They began to become angry and lashed out particularly as democracies failed them.
Remember back in 2008 how excited we were around this time? Barack Obama had been elected and it just seemed like the world was brighter. Truly, there was hope. Boy, that has faded and I think everybody is just disappointed. Even some of us who are more establishment oriented, even we began to go “Are these really the best candidates that we can offer out of all the talent that’s in this country?” And so we see the same kind of thinking in Great Britain, in France, and even in Germany now. And of course, last month in Italy. In the Philippines, etc. The “Common Man” is just pissed off and he’s getting even. He’s shaking things up. I think this is a trend that will go on for years.
And in some ways, it’s a backlash to the rapid global development of the world. When the Berlin Wall came down, everybody was thrilled with the idea of a global village. Remember that term? We embraced it. At the end of the day, we’ll all go back to this more global approach to life, because our entire information and financial systems are now global. We can’t go back. Tariffs and those kind of things would be too disruptive. It used to be that tariffs were cyclical and affected goods and services from one country to another. But now, raising tariffs and increasing the costs of trade on a nationalistic basis is just bad for business. It affects everybody. So, we’re going to have these spikes that we’re seeing and this nationalistic trend is going to fly in the face of it. But at the end of the day, it’s just a practical reality that we are now global anyway. The United States or France or Great Britain can’t turn back internally to an industrial age mentality of nationalism. It just doesn’t work anymore. We’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid and we’re all a part of it now. We’re not going to see things like World War 3, because anybody who does something stupid in a cyber war or a nuclear attack their economy fails as well. Their destroying their own country regardless of their intent. In the information age, conflict is bad for business. In the industrial age, conflict was good for business, but those are days past.
It’s a fascinating thing. Russia is really kind of the beginning of that. For political reasons, Putin is doing these 1950s-style nationalistic policies that make him very popular at home. But at the end of the day, Putin realizes he really can’t do what he would really like to do, because we are all global now. His entire country is tied to the global financial and information systems. And his country would fail if he broke off from that.
David Newstead: Since you mention Russia, I wanted to ask about your current work. How do you think Russia’s recent decision to leave the International Criminal Court will impact the investigation and future prosecution of Syrian war crimes?
David Crane: We’re still continuing to investigate. Nothing changed in that respect. I think the Syrian conflict will continue until Russia allows Assad to win the war or at least militarily bring it to a point where it doesn’t make sense anymore. Now, they’ll be ruling over a completely devastated piece of Earth, but Russia isn’t leaving. Russia will not pull out of Syria until Assad wins. So, that could be next week. That could be five years from now. There’s nothing the U.S. can do to stop it other than this strange bromance that’s going on between Putin and Trump. If for some strange reason, Trump says “Let’s go get drunk somewhere and hash this out,” and everybody sits down at the table and stops the war. And we throw the rebels off the boat. I don’t see this ending well. It’s just a matter of when.
I’ve coined this term called Kaleidoscopic Conflict where we have a new kind of paradigm and Syria is one of these situations. For the first time, we cannot use our old planning processes to predict outcomes. We don’t know anything. No one can advise the President of the United States as to what we should do or what’s going to happen in Syria, because no one knows. Because if one thing changes, everything changes. We’re starting to enter into a geopolitical circumstance where we can no longer restore international peace and security as we’ve tried in the past under the UN paradigm. We’re reaching a point on various parts of the planet where we can only manage international peace and security. To use an analogy, the situation in Syria is like a cancer. If managed, the person can live a generally normal life. So we can manage the disease, but we can’t get rid of it. Same thing with Syria. We can’t solve Syria, but we can try to manage Syria to the point that it doesn’t spread to other parts of the world. And keeping Israel out of this, which is the ignored and unknown part of the conflict. As we all know, Israel has bright red lines in the sand and if you step over them, they don’t ask anymore. They just launch.
We have to manage Syria now, we’ll never solve Syria. In a world where we try to solve everything, particularly in Type-A Washington D.C., that’s anathema to anybody’s thinking. I’ve mentioned this in public and given speeches on it. I’ve said “Gosh, I’d love to solve Syria. But tell me how do we solve Syria?” And of course, they can’t answer, because there is no solution at this point. To show you how absurd this is, we are allied with Syria and Russia to fight ISIS. But yet we’re also sending money and personnel to fight Syria by supporting the rebels. We’re actually working with and working against the same person. That’s absurd.
David Newstead: I just feel like, you know, the Syrian conflict led to the migrant crisis, which influenced all these elections. And it all interrelates and it’s very complicated and really dark.
David Crane: Oh, it is. You’ve got the middle class and the lower class who have been affected by a Great Recession, who are trying to just get basic services. And all of a sudden, the country is letting in a million refugees and giving them more than they are getting. And all of a sudden, they’re choking on it. You know, European liberalism and progressivism went out the window when this wave of human beings with a great deal of hope showed up at their doors.
David Newstead: As we wrap things up, I’m curious. For people who work in human rights and for people who support human rights, where do we go from here and what do you think people should do in the interim?
David Crane: Well, continue what we’re doing. But also in the business that we’re in, there are a lot of altruists. They’re always out there trying to buy the world a coke and make them live in harmony. I’m the complete opposite. I’m a practical, hard-nosed person who has a goal in mind, but realizes that I have to do it from a practical point of view. We just have to look for places and spaces where we can affect policy in the new administration and make them see that this is good for America. But just coming in with your hair on fire, screaming “This isn’t right! These people have a right to do XYZ!” As we say in North Carolina, that dog isn’t going to hunt. You’ve got to come in and show them practically why this makes sense, why this is good for America, and why we should continue to do this. Speak their language. Don’t sit there and be arrogant or think that these people are cretins and that they’re just a flash in the pan. So, I’ve been advising others. I’m on a couple of boards of some big human rights organizations. And I’ve been telling them to stop running around with their hair on fire and sit down and think about what we can do to start developing contacts and have a voice in appropriate places to continue our work.
Now I think people are starting to calm down a little bit more. And I think more reasonable voices are starting to echo that it is what it is. Let’s figure out strategies and policies by which we can have a voice where that makes sense. But not stop what we’re doing! This is a political event, not a world changing paradigm. You know, we have a politician who has now been elected for four years. They come and go, but our work never ends.
By David Michael Newstead.
David Crane is a law professor at Syracuse University and the former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. As Chief Prosecutor, he indicted then Liberian President Charles Taylor, leading to Taylor’s conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Today, David Crane joins me to discuss impunity in Africa, his investigation into Syrian war crimes, and the need for expanded human rights laws in the United States.
David Newstead: Considering that you helped to prosecute Liberian President Charles Taylor and that Chad’s former dictator Hissène Habré was recently convicted for human rights abuses, do you feel like particularly in Africa’s case that impunity has ended for heads of state and elected officials?
David Crane: Oh, not at all. Unfortunately, impunity has raised its head in a very negative way. When we indicted Charles Taylor back in June of 2003, it was a beginning. I thought a very hopeful beginning against the good old boys club of Africa. We had broken down that barrier and heads of state in Africa would be held accountable.
But because of some missteps by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the withdrawal of the African Union as a participant largely in the ICC for a lot of reasons. And the recent declaration a year ago by African heads of state saying they will not be held accountable for whatever they do in office, I thought we took about a thirty year step backwards.
The Habré investigation and trial were on-going. So even though it appears that we have some positive steps, in reality I just have to tell you I’m not confident where this is going. And I’m a little bit disappointed in the attitudes politically of African leaders related to dealing with their own people. It’s not a good step forward frankly. Even though the Habré conviction is important, there are other political leaders in Africa that need to be held accountable. And I fear that they will not, particularly with the political climate against international justice at this point.
David Newstead: You’ve also been working on possible war crimes prosecutions related to the Syrian conflict, is that correct?
David Crane: Yes. I’ve been working on this from the very beginning since March 2011. Over five years.
David Newstead: Would that mainly focus on prosecuting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Or other actors in the conflict as well?
David Crane: The Syrian Accountability Project, which we put together to deal with this back in March of 2011, is looking at all parties neutrally. So, we’re looking at all sides, all players. Which has gone from just the Free Syrian Army versus Assad to about eleven significant players who are just chewing the people of Syria apart. So, we want to make sure this is considered and known as a neutral effort to seek justice for the people of Syria. It’s not about going after just Assad, but everyone. Because everyone is going after the people of Syria.
David Newstead: So, not only Assad, but also ISIS and Al-Nusra Front and other factions?
David Crane: Oh yeah. All of the factions. To include the Free Syrian Army. Everybody.
David Newstead: In 2014, you were involved in the release of some 55,000 photographs of human rights abuses in Syria.
David Crane: Yes, I was the co-author of the Caesar Report detailing those abuses.
David Newstead: Can you say more about the evidence that your group has been collecting since then and what that consists of?
David Crane: That’s a good question. A fair question. Again based on my long term experience in this business particularly taking down one of the few heads of state in history, I’ve basically built a practical legal way of doing that. Using the same techniques that we used in West Africa, we’re doing the same thing in Syria and in the Levant region. And that is developing a conflict map, a crime-based matrix, and associated documents, which we can then build into indictments.
We’re very careful in the data that we use in our crime-based matrix, which shows chronologically time, location, unit involved, and then the alleged crime itself. And then also what we do is we list the violation of the Rome Statute, the violation of international humanitarian law as well as the violation of the Syrian criminal code. So, this could be used by either a local prosecutor, a regional prosecutor, or an international prosecutor, referring to this package that we’ve been putting together over the past five and a half years. So, they could use this to start building their own case against those who they feel have committed either Syrian crimes or international crimes.
The data is carefully vetted. We have contacts throughout the world (to include the Middle East, to include in Syria) providing us real-time, real-world criminal information that we then take and verify. Our rule is that it has to be verified as has happened. We have a rumor of an incident and then we have to verify it by two other sources before we put it on the crime-based matrix. But the fascinating thing is that crime-based matrix is now over 7,000 pages. And it’s on an Excel spreadsheet.
David Newstead: You have a 7,000 page Excel spreadsheet?!
David Crane: Yeah, 25 incidents per page. Now again, this is just verifiable incidents of possible international crimes. You have to understand that when I was doing this just twelve years ago, we had to create our case the old-fashion way. You know, getting out there and finding the evidence. Now, it’s completely reversed. All of the data that’s coming out of Syria and it’s in terabytes almost daily, it’s a tsunami of information. And what ends up happening is that you’re looking for that needle in the haystack as opposed to no haystacks.
And I think this is important for you and your readers to understand that 99.99% of the information coming out of Syria in whatever capacity it is – through social media, internet, direct testimony, whatever – is not useful in court. We can’t turn it into evidence, because of the authenticity of it, the chain of custody, and all of that. So, we have a great database for the history of the events and that’s important. The data can be used for other things.
But as a former international chief prosecutor, I’ve got to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt using rules of evidence before a court. And that data creates leads. But at the end of the day, if they called me right now and said “You’re now the Chief Prosecutor for Syria!” all of this would be useful to me. We’ve converted that into useful information. That’s how the Syrian Accountability Project takes it one step further. We’ve converted this information into criminal information, which then can be converted into evidence by a future prosecutor. So, we’ve kind of strained it a bit if you get my drift. You know, we’re moving it to where a future prosecutor be they local, regional, or international can go into court and prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. So, that’s the data issue.
David Newstead: That sounds like a very important, but involved effort of trying to put all those pieces together.
David Crane: It’s a very considerate process by which we then put that on a database. But it is amazing, isn’t it? You multiply 7,000 or now it’s almost 7,500 pages times 25 incidents, you get a sense of what is happening over there.
David Newstead: And that the conflict has dragged on for so long.
David Crane: Now again, it’s important to note that the Caesar Report I mentioned earlier is direct evidence and it is credible evidence and can be used in a court of law. After we finished our report, it was importantly treated by the press and really put a heavy burden on Assad. The sad thing about this is, this is only coming from 3 detention facilities. And yet, we can probably verify that between 10,000 and 12,000 human beings were destroyed in just 3 detention facilities. We estimate that there are over 52 detention facilities. So, the Caesar Report may have just been the tip of the iceberg.
In this business, it’s very unusual to have direct evidence of atrocity in the sense of one you can take into court. The smoking gun, so to speak. We had it in Nuremberg, because the Nazis wrote everything down. We have found that the Assad regime, very much like the Nazis in Germany, writes these things down. And we were able to get a look in the window of some of this through the Caesar Report.
So after the Caesar Report, what I did was to have a neutral country meet with the people who had the original thumb drives. And we were able to negotiate an agreement between the organization that Caesar was a part of and this country to have their chief prosecutor and evidence custodian take the originals and put them in an evidence bag and to start a chain of custody and then put those thumb drives in the country’s evidence locker. So some day when a prosecutor asks for that, there’s a chain of custody. There’s an authenticity. It can be signed over to them and put into their evidence room. So when they bring these documents and these photographs into evidence, they can authenticate it. Because the issue is with all these videos and all these pictures we’re seeing is – What’s the authenticity? Who took that? Why? Is that a real photo? Is that a real video? Who took the video? Where is it? You see where this gets very complicated very quickly.
But the Caesar Report and the evidence that we were able to seize and put in an evidence locker, that’ll convict Assad in and of itself of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
David Newstead: Shifting gears some, I wanted to ask about the Magnitsky Act, which currently bans Russian human rights abusers from using the U.S. banking system or vacationing in the United States. We’re in an election year, but there is a proposal in Congress to expand that law to place similar restrictions on human rights abusers from all over the world. Do you feel it’s necessary to expand the Magnitsky Act? And if so why?
David Crane: Well again, this is a beginning of a beginning to be honest with you. I think the Magnitsky Act is a signal of U.S. commitments to addressing these types of acts such as what happened with Sergei Magnitsky and other human rights abuses by countries around the world.
Of course, it’s really kind of tongue in cheek. After the first ten years of the 21st century, we did not cover ourselves in glory for obvious reasons. So, it’s very difficult. It’s going to take a while for the U.S. to regain the credibility that it built up since the My Lai massacre of being a country that did take care of these things.
The Magnitsky Act is a beginning of a new beginning where we’re trying to turn the ship around. We’re showing the world that those who commit crimes such as these will be held accountable and will be held accountable at a larger level than just domestically – that there’s an international price to pay dealing with embargos and seizures of assets and those kind of things. So, I think it’s a very positive step.
But I think you’re very correct. It’s an election season. So, two things can happen. If we have a Republican administration, then I’m not sure where this is going to go. It certainly could die a sad death. In a Democratic administration, I think there’s more hope for it to move forward. It just depends on the balance of power in the House of Representatives and the Senate. I think we’re going to be in a hiatus for right now. As we get closer to the election, you know everybody is running campaigns right now.
David Newstead: So to clarify, you don’t think the Magnitsky Act would be prioritized under a possible Trump administration?
David Crane: I don’t know. I mean, your guess would be as good as mine. There’s been no discussion at all in the campaign about human rights in any way, shape, or form that I’ve noticed. I’ve just not noted any of that. And it’s not inconsistent with the way the U.S. is from a political point of view domestically. You know, human rights does not get you votes. I mean at the end of the day, that’s just a fact. It’s not that Americans don’t care, but that’s just not going to cause people to vote for you. So what you’re going to see, the human rights issue writ large is just going to be set aside. I don’t see anything getting done in the next year frankly, regardless of who is in the administration. Because it takes a new administration a year or six month just to figure out where they’re going. And that’s another hiatus as well. So, you’ve got the political buildup to the election and then you’ve got the new administration trying to establish itself. And so, these kind of things tend to get put aside or dumped depending on the political perspective.
David Newstead: Are there any specific examples of human rights abusers that you feel epitomize why we need an expanded version of the Magnitsky Act?
David Crane: Oh sure. I mean, we can go around the world. I can spend the rest of the afternoon talking to you about that. A good example is Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe. He would be directly affected by a more globalized Magnitsky Act. Africa would be very much affected by a lot of this.
David Newstead: In terms of leaders’ banking and their ability to go on vacation and so forth?
David Crane: Of course. Absolutely. You know even if the International Criminal Court can’t do anything or if the world has just decided not to do anything about a crime… At the end of the day, international criminal law is driven by politics. The bright red thread of all this is politics. It’s always a political decisions to hand over a head of state to somebody as opposed to a legal reason. That’ll always be a political decision. But it’s important for the U.S. have this ability. Because really at the end of the day, if you’re going to get a thug or a dictator or a tyrant’s attention just grab him by the money. That and his ability to move around the world, that definitely gets their attention.
I think the beauty of the Magnitsky Act concept is that it hits them where it hurts. These are basically mafia characters. I mean, it’s all about money and power and greed with them. And if you limit them or cause them to reconsider travelling or doing something like that, I think that’s a real benefit. So, I very much support this kind of initiative that was started with the Magnitsky Act and now is going to be expanded in a broader sense.
David Newstead: I remember several years ago Assad’s wife was banned from going shopping in Europe. And prior to that, she was known for taking these very expensive shopping trips to Paris and places like that. And I assume other dictator’s wives and family members are the same?
David Crane: Sure. And you know with the Magnitsky Act, something like that could cause detention. That could cause seizure of assets. That could cause extradition. Yeah, exactly. And she goes back to her husband saying “I can’t go to Paris anymore!” She’s not going to be happy about that. And from just a domestic point of view, it can be really problematic for these guys. And it’s all guys. It’s not women. So yeah, their wives and families are potentially giving them hell, because they can’t go to the places they’re used to. Because they’re not going to go shopping in downtown Damascus. That’s a good example though of how that can hurt.
Question from a Reader: Given your experience in West Africa and your current project related to Syria, I’m curious what motivates you to do this work?
David Crane: Well, let me just give you a simple example of that. One day I was at one of our outreach programs where I walked the countryside of Sierra Leone, listening to my clients talk to me about what happened. I was at school in McKinney that used to be the headquarters of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the ones that used to cut people’s hands and arms and noses and ears and buttocks off just because they liked doing it. And I was in the audience just standing among them talking and a young man stood up. He was about twelve years old. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and he said “I killed people. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” And he fell into my arms, crying. And of course, I had tears in my eyes. And as I looked up, there was a young woman who stood up and half her face was missing. I was told later her face had been put in a pot of boiling water by the RUF. She was holding a young child and she just looked at me from her one good eye and said “Seek justice for us.”
So, it’s for the little guy. We tend to talk to about 50,000 here or 100,000 there. But it’s one person at a time. So, that’s what motivates me. It’s a righteous fury. You know, I had the honor and privilege of doing something about that when Kofi Annan appointed me to go to Sierra Leone and do that. But that’s what keeps me going, because I always remember those individuals who the world just steps over and moves on. Whereas, I don’t. I remember them and this is for them. And so, there are very much the same kind of people in Syria and around the world. So, I do this for them.
By David Michael Newstead.
Bill Browder is at the center of one of the most well-documented human rights cases in history. The 2009 death of his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, galvanized the former investor into becoming an activist and a staunch critic of the Kremlin. Since then, his work has led to the passage of the Magnitsky Act in the U.S. and similar efforts in the E.U., which ban the 32 Russians implicated in Sergei’s death from traveling to or banking in those countries. Currently, a proposed expansion to that law is being debated in Congress, which would place the same restrictions on human rights abusers from all over the world through targeted sanctions.
But Browder’s campaign has also unleashed increasingly bizarre reactions from the Russian government. In 2012, authorities in Moscow put Sergei Magnitsky on trial despite the fact that he died in 2009 – making this the first trial of a dead person since the medieval Catholic Church prosecuted a corpse in the year 897. Russia would further retaliate for the U.S. Magnitsky Act by banning American couples from adopting Russian orphans, even those already assigned to parents. Meanwhile, Putin’s government has issued so many arrest warrants against Bill Browder that they are now ignored by Interpol, citing that such charges are predominantly political.
Browder recently wrote about these experiences in his book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice. At one time, he was the single largest foreign investor in Russia. Now, he’s considered a top enemy of Vladimir Putin and he frequently comments on the war in Ukraine, the murder of Boris Nemtsov, and more. Today, Bill Browder joins me to discuss the current situation in Russia and the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky.
David Newstead: I want to start by asking about Sergei Magnitsky, the man. How would you describe him and how do his loved ones remember him today?
Bill Browder: The best way to describe him is that he was one of the most principled, moral, reliable people I’ve ever met. You generally only know a person when they’re faced with some type of duress. And when Sergei Magnitsky was faced with the most horrendous duress, his true colors of integrity showed through in an amazing way.
David Newstead: The corrupt officials responsible for Sergei’s death stole $230 million from Russian taxpayers. Recently, you said $15 million of that money was seized in the United States in the form of luxury apartments in Lower Manhattan. Is that correct?
Bill Browder: Yes. The U.S. Department of Justice has seized $15 million of property in New York, which was purchased using some of the money from the crime that Sergei Magnitsky exposed.
David Newstead: So without the restrictions that you helped put in place through the Magnitsky Act, Sergei’s murderers could hypothetically be walking around New York or traveling anywhere throughout the U.S.?
Bill Browder: There’s actually two separate things going on. The apartments were not frozen under the Magnitsky Act. They were frozen under just more generic money laundering laws in America. The Magnitsky Act itself has sanctioned 32 people, taken away their visas, and frozen their assets. And those people certainly can’t go to America. They can’t use the U.S. banking system. And they will have a pretty hard time using the global banking system, because almost no bank in the world would open an account for somebody who’s on the U.S. Treasury sanctions list. But the New York case is actually a case that would have gone through with or without the Magnitsky Act.
David Newstead: Are there specific human rights abusers from other countries who are good examples of why we need a Global Magnitsky Act?
Bill Browder: I think I could spend all week listing human rights abusers around the world who should be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. But one case in particular, which has really touched me and many others, is a case in Azerbaijan of Khadija Ismayilova. Khadija was an investigative reporter who was working on corruption in the Azerbaijani ruling family. And in retaliation for some hard-hitting reporting that she did, they arrested her, tried her for a mutating list of bogus allegations, and sentenced her to 7 years in prison. I can’t think of a more deserving bunch of people to be sanctioned than those people who arrested her and imprisoned her.
David Newstead: So because the Magnitsky Act only applies to Russia right now, human rights abusers from other countries are still able to come to the United States and use our banking system if they haven’t violated other U.S. laws?
Bill Browder: Correct. That’s why the Global Magnitsky Act is such an important next step. Russia doesn’t have a monopoly on human rights abusers.
David Newstead: Who opposes this law exactly? Because it seems straight forward.
Bill Browder: Well, there are the people I describe as the real-politickers who oppose it. These people say, “If we do a Global Magnitsky Act, that might sanction the ‘good’ human rights abusers.” Meaning those human rights abusers who are seen to be allies of the United States. You know, for example, Turkey and even Azerbaijan are considered to be strong allies of the United States in various geopolitical squabbles. So, the thought is that you can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. I believe you can have a mature relationship where you have diplomatic relations on one side and sanction certain corrupt officers on the other.
David Newstead: Besides that, are there any major roadblocks to the law’s passage and when do you think that might happen?
Bill Browder: The law is very quickly moving its way through the Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already approved it, which is the last bottleneck in the Senate. In the House, there is very strong bipartisan support. There’s also strong support from many different human rights groups from all around the world.
It’s very hard to say the timing of legislation in Washington, because it doesn’t just depend on the virtue of one’s legislation. It depends on the environment in which there’s a relatively limited amount of time for the lawmaking process to deal with all sorts of other issues. So, it all depends on priorities and politics. And as we get closer to the U.S. presidential election, you’re going to see much less bipartisan cooperation on anything as people want to score points. So, I think it’s either going to happen this year or probably after the presidential election, but before this Congress is dismissed.
David Newstead: You’ve said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is evil and probably a sociopath. If that’s true, how do you think Western governments should behave towards a sociopath who runs a major nation-state?
Bill Browder: I think that the simple answer is that he’s not a man who can be engaged with under normal rules of diplomatic engagement. Don’t expect any word that he says to be true or that any promises he makes will ever be honored. So in a situation like that, you have to deal with him in terms of containment not in terms of engagement.
David Newstead: What do you think the explanation is for Putin’s constant need to project strength and manliness? A cult of masculinity, if you will. Last week, for instance, there was a video of him lifting weights with Dmitri Medvedev. What’s behind that?
Bill Browder: Well, lack of strength and lack of manliness. You know, he’s kind of like an athlete who cheats. Imagine the scenario of a soccer player dribbling the ball towards the goal. Someone comes up to him to try to take the ball away and Putin pulls out a gun and shoots the person. Then, Putin gets close to the goal and the goalie is sitting there trying to guard the goal, so Putin shoots him as well. And then, Putin kicks the ball in and raises his hands in victory like this great soccer player when, in fact, he’s just cheated all the way through the game. That analogy is what he does in all aspects of his political life. And he’s cheating by eliminating all of his opposition by either putting them in jail, sending them to exile or killing them.
David Newstead: Is it accurate to say that Sergei Magnitsky and Vladimir Putin are complete opposites as men?
Bill Browder: Well, Sergei Magnitsky was a patriot – an honest patriot who wanted to help Russia. Putin is a dishonest kleptocrat who wants to steal all the resources of Russia for himself. So, they’re exactly the opposite.
David Newstead: Whenever I talk to people unfamiliar with the Magnitsky case, you know they’re always struck by the fact that he was put on trial years after he died. Do legal scholars ever comment on this to you? I mean, what was your reaction at the time, because this hasn’t happened since the Middle Ages?
Bill Browder: Absolutely. One of my most trusted advisers is the former chief prosecutor for the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal for Sierra Leone. He’s a professor named David Crane at Syracuse University. He wrote a whole series of articles in the legal academic press about the posthumous trial. He said he’s never gotten more feedback. In the legal world, it’s something that nobody can conceive of.
David Newstead: Everything ends someday. If you had to speculate, how do you think Putin’s presidency will end?
Bill Browder: I think that there’s 3 different political scenarios. The first is what I call the Mugabe scenario, which is that he somehow holds it all together for decades through further hyperinflation, destroying institutions, and driving the Russian people into poverty. And I think that could be the most likely scenario. The second is the Palace Coup scenario, which is the oligarchs and secret police officers at some point decide Putin’s a liability. And they gang up to overthrow him.
And the third is what I call the Maidan scenario, which is the name of the square in Kiev where the people of Ukraine overthrew President Yanukovich. I think that the Mugabe scenario probably has a 65% probability. The Palace Coup scenario maybe a 20% probability and the Maidan scenario 15% probability.
David Newstead: Is there any hope that opposition figures like Alexei Navalny, Gary Kasparov, or Mikhail Khodorkovsky might one day succeed, because that wasn’t on your list?
Bill Browder: Well, they would be part of the Maidan scenario. Those would be the people who become the new government of Russia once the people overthrow Putin. Having said that, all these men are either in exile or effectively in jail. Putin doesn’t allow any oxygen for the opposition. It’s like the cheating in sports analogy. If you don’t have an opposing team, it’s easy to win.
David Newstead: In your view, what will Russia be like in 10 or 20 years?
Bill Browder: I think if everything is status quo, it would be a Venezuela or Zimbabwe type of scenario. Hyperinflation. Mass poverty.
David Newstead: In addition to discussing Sergei’s imprisonment, your book Red Notice is really an autobiography with a good amount of personal detail, family history, and the progression of your career right up to the present. Do you plan on writing follow-up books as the campaign for a Global Magnitsky Act moves forward or if the political climate in Russia changes?
Bill Browder: The next step in my campaign is to find a way to adapt the book into a Hollywood feature film. Film is a very emotive median by nature. I think by bringing it into popular culture our campaign will be more effective. That will make the Magnitsky Act more well-known, broadening it in Europe, and also globalizing it as it applies to other human rights abusers.
David Newstead: Is that effort still in the early stages?
Bill Browder: Movies take a long time to make, because there are so many different people involved. We just started that process and we’ll see where it goes.
David Newstead: In the book, you’ve said that you have to take elaborate counter-measures based on death threats and harassment from Russian authorities or their proxies. Without commenting on the specifics of your counter-measures, can you say more about how they go after you?
Bill Browder: Well, the objective is to destroy me either physically, legally, or reputationally. So in their perfect world, if they could just get away with it, they would kill me. But so far they haven’t, probably because they haven’t figured out a way they could get away with it. And so, the next step is to try to destroy me legally. In other words, to try to get me arrested and extradited back to Russia. Through Interpol red notices or bilateral extradition requests. So far, that hasn’t succeeded. Then, the third thing they try to do is to destroy me reputationally by putting shows about me on their television, accusing me of crimes of murder and massive fraud in Russia. They provide dossiers of fake information to foreign governments and parliamentarians. So far, none of this has worked, but it’s a constant fight with the Russians to make sure they don’t succeed.
Question from a Reader: What’s your opinion on investing in Russia today? And what would it take for you to re-enter the market as you did 20 years ago during the fall of communism?
Bill Browder: It’s an un-investable country today. You have a regime that’s hostile to business and hostile to the West. And so you can’t bring in any money at any price level, because it’s absolutely uncertain what the next political decision will be. You know if you owned a media company before and they changed the media laws, your company was basically destroyed completely. And they do that all the time with all sorts of businesses and all sorts of rules. All sorts of arbitrariness. So, what would make me go back in? Well, I went in after the fall of the Soviet Union. I guess I would probably go in after the fall of the Putin regime, depending on who followed.
David Newstead: Final question. If people are interested in helping to pass the Global Magnitsky Act, what should they do?
Bill Browder: They should get in touch with me. There’s lots of very specific tasks to do in our campaign. There’s no petition or some easy thing to do. But if someone’s seriously interested, we want people to join the effort.
By David Michael Newstead.
Three biographies converge in Bill Browder’s new book, Red Notice. The first is Browder’s own life, which follows the ebb and flow of modern Russian history. The grandson of an American communist leader, Browder set out to become a successful investor in Eastern Europe 25 years ago as communism was collapsing. And with considerable humor, he writes about the start to his career when he was often ridiculed as “that crazy fuck who wouldn’t shut up about Russia.” But not long after that, his foresight proved to be wildly profitable and Browder became the single largest foreigner investor in the country throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s. During that time, his business was able to thrive through its research abilities and by publicizing widespread corruption and malfeasance in companies like the energy giant Gazprom. But this also made him some powerful enemies. And in 2006, Bill Browder was unexpectedly deported and declared to be a threat to national security. Browder would go on to hire several lawyers to determine what was happening and among them was a tax attorney named Sergei Magnitsky.
Born in Odessa, Sergei was a married father of two employed at the law firm Firestone Duncan in Moscow where he specialized in civil law. Quiet and studious, Magnitsky uncovered a complex plot by corrupt officials in the Russian government to steal millions of dollars of taxpayer money. When things became increasingly dangerous during the investigation, Sergei was steadfast, refusing to flee his country and he would later testify against the officials involved. Not long after that, Magnitsky was arrested by those same officials and forced to endure horrific conditions in an attempt to make him recant his testimony and sign false confessions. Again, Sergei refused.
Over the next year, he was denied badly needed medical care, transferred to ever worsening prisons, and forbidden any contact with his family. Despite this treatment, authorities failed to obtain a false confession and they never broke Sergei’s spirit. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky would die at age 37 in Butyrka prison, having been beaten to death by guards there. But the information highlighted in the 450 criminal complaints he filed while in jail document consistent refusals of medical treatment as well as human rights abuses designed to coerce a seemingly mild mannered tax attorney. This detailed evidence combined with the brutality of his death compelled people like Browder and others to push for some form of justice for those responsible, realizing this case to be emblematic of problems that plague Russia today. The result was the 2012 Magnitsky Act in the United States and a similar 2014 law in the European Union, which place visa bans and asset freezes on corrupt officials involved in Sergei’s death and the ensuing cover-up. It is considered a major piece of human rights legislation and a particularly effective tool for punishing criminals who act with impunity in their own countries.
But beyond the crimes of a few mid-level government employees, the information presented in Red Notice is very much an indictment of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Looming large as the book progresses, Putin’s system of government is gradually revealed to be one of corruption and violent repression completely at odds with men like Sergei Magnitsky. It’s worth noting that all the corrupt officials named throughout the book went on to be promoted and awarded top honors, while financial records reveal that their lavish spending in places like Italy and Dubai could not possibly come from their modest salaries. But while his killers walk free, Sergei Magnitsky was put on trial in 2012, despite the fact he had been dead for 3 years. In some perverse caricature of the law, Sergei was found guilty as guards stood watch over an empty cell throughout the proceedings.
Ultimately, the events in Red Notice are a telling sign of life in Putin’s Russia – where criminals run rampant and the innocent are prosecuted even after they’ve died. But even then, if history were to compare these two Russian biographies, Putin and Magnitsky, you would find one person who desperately tries to project strength and manliness in everything that he does. Then, there’s the other man who fought for the principles he believed in, refusing to ever give in.