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What’s really behind Putin’s obsession with the Magnitsky Act
The Washington Post
Vladimir Kara-Murza
Friday, July 20, 2018

Standing by President Trump’s side in Helsinki for their first bilateral summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin made what Trump described as an “incredible” offer: He would help U.S. investigators gain access to Russian intelligence officers indicted for the 2016 election hacking, on one small condition. “We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate and they would question [U.S.] officials … who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” Putin said, producing the name to indicate what actions he had in mind: “Mr. Browder.”

Bill Browder, an American-born financier, came to Russia in the 1990s. The grandson of a former general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Browder by his own admission wanted to become “the biggest capitalist in Russia.” He succeeded and was for a decade the country’s largest portfolio foreign investor.

Whatever the sins of Russia’s freewheeling capitalism, Browder’s real crime in the eyes of the Kremlin came later, after he had been expelled from Russia in 2005. In 2008, his Moscow lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a tax scam involving government officials that defrauded Russian taxpayers of $230 million. He did what any law-abiding citizen would, reporting the crime to the relevant authorities. In return, he was arrested and held in detention without trial for almost a year. He was beaten and died on Nov. 16, 2009, at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison under mysterious circumstances. Officials involved in his case received awards and promotions. In a chilling act worthy of Kafka, the only trial held in the Magnitsky case was a posthumous sentencing of himself — the only trial against a dead man in the history of Russia.

It was then that Browder turned from investment to full-time advocacy, traveling the world to persuade one Western parliament after another to pass a measure that was as groundbreaking as it would appear obvious: a law, commemoratively named the Magnitsky Act, that bars individuals (from Russia and elsewhere) who are complicit in human rights abuses and corruption from traveling to the West, owning assets in the West and using the financial system of the West. Boris Nemtsov, then Russia’s opposition leader (who played a key role in convincing Congress to pass the law in 2012), called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign Parliament.”

It was the smartest approach to sanctions. It avoided the mistake of targeting Russian citizens at large for the actions of a small corrupt clique in the Kremlin and placed responsibility directly where it is due. It was also the most effective approach. The people who are in charge of Russia today like to pose as patriots, but in reality, they care little about the country. They view it merely as a looting ground, where they can amass personal fortunes at the expense of Russian taxpayers and then transfer those fortunes to the West. In one of his anti-corruption reports, Nemtsov detailed the unexplained riches attained by Putin’s personal friends such as Gennady Timchenko, Yuri Kovalchuk and the Rotenberg brothers, noting that they are likely “no more that the nominal owners … and the real ultimate beneficiary is Putin himself.” Similar suspicions were voiced after the publication of the 2016 Panama Papers, which showed a $2 billion offshore trail leading to another close Putin friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin. Some of the funds in his accounts were linked with money from the tax fraud scheme uncovered by Magnitsky.

Volumes of research, hours of expert testimony and countless policy recommendations have been dedicated to finding effective Western approaches to Putin’s regime. The clearest and the most convincing answer was provided, time and again, by the Putin regime itself. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin tasked his foreign ministry with trying to stop; it was the Magnitsky Act that was openly tied to the ban on child adoptions; it was the Magnitsky Act that was the subject of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting attended by a Kremlin-linked lawyer; it is advocating for the Magnitsky Act that may soon land any Russian citizen in prison. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin named as the biggest threat to his regime as he stood by Trump’s side in Helsinki.

After the Trump-Putin meeting, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office released the names of U.S. citizens it wants to question as supposed associates of Browder. The list leaves no doubt as to the nature of the “crime.” It includes Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia policy at the Obama White House and later U.S. Ambassador in Moscow who oversaw the “compiling of memos to the State Department … on the investigation in the Magnitsky case.” It includes David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, who, as president of Freedom House between 2010 and 2014, was one of the most effective advocates for the Magnitsky Act. Perhaps most tellingly, it includes Kyle Parker, now chief of staff at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, who, as the lead Russia staffer at the commission, wrote the bill that subsequently became the Magnitsky Act.

Vladimir Putin has left no doubt: The biggest threat to his regime is the Magnitsky Act, which stops its beneficiaries from doing what has long become their raison d’être — stealing in Russia and spending in the West. It is time for more Western nations to adopt this law — and for the six countries that already have it to implement it with vigor and resolve.

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U.S. citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge is one of several American citizens, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, who were caught up in the sweeping government-led purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Brunson was convicted on fabricated terrorism charges and released in October 2018 but Gölge remains in jail serving a five-year sentence because of a similar conviction. He has been in jail since July 2016. Since early 2017, Turkish authorities have targeted three veteran Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in Turkey on trumped-up national security charges that appear to stem in part from routine contacts they maintained as part of their professional responsibilities. All three men have worked as locally employed staff of the United States Government in Turkey for more than three decades. A Turkish court in January 2019 convicted Hamza Ulucay, who was imprisoned since February 2017, on terrorism charges without any credible evidence of wrongdoing. He was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, but released on time served. Two other local staff from the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, remain in custody or under house arrest on similar trumped-up charges. After 18 months in jail, Metin had his first court hearing last month. The court adjourned his trial until May 15. In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. In the months prior to the hearing, Helsinki Commission leaders raised these cases in letters to President Erdogan and President Trump.

  • The U.S. must stand up to Erdogan and his politically motivated detentions

    Last fall, Americans rejoiced as the pastor Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native, returned home after spending more than two years in Turkish prisons on baseless terrorism and espionage charges. A combination of congressional pressure and targeted sanctions on Turkish officials sent a clear message to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States would not tolerate his using Brunson as a pawn to extract political concessions. Faced with mounting political and economic costs, Erdogan caved. Sadly, the pastor’s release did not put an end to Erdogan’s hostage-taking. Today, the Turkish government continues to hold at least one American citizen and two Turkish employees of the U.S. government on false charges. Erdogan plans to inflict misery on these innocent people until he gets what he wants out of the United States — whether that is a green light to attack Kurdish strongholds in northern Syria, taking legal action against Fethullah Gulen and his followers in the United States, or U.S. acquiescence to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system. Such attempts at extortion are all the more galling coming from Turkey, an important NATO ally that is not acting like one. American citizen and NASA physicist Serkan Golge is serving a five-year prison sentence for alleged involvement in terrorism, despite no credible evidence of wrongdoing. Turkish police have also used false terrorism charges to detain three longtime Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in the country: Hamza Ulucay, Metin Topuz, and Mete Canturk. Golge and Topuz are in solitary confinement, where they have spent up to two-and-a-half years with only an hour of fresh air per week. Ulucay was released earlier this year after being held for nearly two years. Canturk remains under house arrest, and his family is subject to travel bans and regular police check-ins. These men are all innocent. Not only have they lost irreplaceable time with their families, but the physical and psychological toll of their ordeal also means they may never be the same once they regain their liberty. The United States did not tolerate the politically motivated detention and mistreatment of a U.S. citizen in the case of Pastor Brunson. We should not tolerate those acts now with Golge or longtime U.S. government employees. As the United States increased pressure on Turkey over Brunson, it simultaneously tried to cut a deal with Erdogan for the freedom of the other detainees. By now, it is abundantly clear that no amount of coaxing will secure their freedom. Any negotiation over their fate would only reward Erdogan’s bad behavior. As with Brunson, only stiff political and economic pressure will work. This week, I introduced the bipartisan Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act of 2019, which would require the president to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for these wrongful detentions, including barring them from travel to the United States and freezing any assets they have here. The bill further calls on President Trump to urge Turkey to restore due-process guarantees and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom are victims of the same sort of politically motivated prosecution and indefinite detention endured by our citizens and consulate personnel. The United States has a particular moral obligation to protect our own citizens. Golge’s wrongful imprisonment at the hands of the Turkish government cannot stand. We also have moral obligations to our local staff overseas. Thousands of citizens of other countries work at U.S. government facilities around the globe, lending their diverse expertise to critical U.S. missions, often at great risk to themselves and their families. The credibility of the United States is at stake in the eyes of these courageous individuals who place their trust and safety in our hands. The fate of their colleagues in Turkey weighs heavily on the minds of our consular staff, as it does on our national conscience. No effort should be spared until they are free.

  • U.S. senators introduce bill to sanction Turkish officials over detentions

    Two U.S. senators on Tuesday introduced a bipartisan bill requiring the imposition of sanctions on Turkish officials responsible for the detentions of U.S. citizens and local consulate staff in Turkey, a statement on the legislation said. The bill, introduced by Republican Senator Roger Wicker and Democrat Ben Cardin, also calls on President Donald Trump to urge Turkey to respect for the fundamental freedoms, saying thousands were victims of politically-motivated prosecution. “The Turkish government’s false imprisonment of Americans and Turkish citizens employed by the United States in Turkey is a gross violation of their human rights,” Senator Cardin said in the statement. “Our bill makes clear that the United States will not tolerate years of Turkish recalcitrance on these cases.” The detention of U.S. consulate workers and American citizens is one of many issues dividing NATO allies Ankara and Washington, also at loggerheads over Syria policy and Turkey’s planned purchase of Russian missile defenses. Their detentions prompted Washington in October 2017 to suspend all non-immigrant visa applications from the country, triggering a reciprocal move from Ankara that contributed to a deep crisis in bilateral ties. The bill introduced Tuesday would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for the “wrongful” detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets. Turkey has detained tens of thousands of people following a failed coup in July 2016, saying they were linked with the network of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric blamed by Ankara for orchestrating the putsch. U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson was among those jailed in the aftermath of the coup. He was released last October. “While the Turkish government made a step in the right direction with the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson last October, more needs to be done for Turkey to show good faith and act like a NATO ally,” said Republican Senator Thom Tillis, one of six original sponsors of Tuesday’s bill. Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-U.S. citizen, was found guilty of being a member of an armed terrorist organization earlier this year and sentenced to seven years, six months in prison. Three other Turkish citizens who were working at the U.S. consulates in Turkey have been under investigation or jailed over similar charges. A Turkish court last month ruled that one of the consular workers, Metin Topuz, a translator and fixer in Istanbul, should remain in jail until his trial resumes in June.

  • Developments in Hungary

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group at the German Marshall Fund; Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society at Human Rights First; and Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute explored recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption. “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.” – Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, February 12, 2019 Mr. Rohac discussed Hungary’s measurable decline on various indicators of good governance and the rule of law; patterns of politically organized corruption; and the implications of developments in Hungary for the United States. He observed that Hungary has experienced a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance according to virtually any indicator, including the assessments of the World Bank, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. He noted that the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom places the protection of property rights in Hungary in the mostly unfree territory. This stems in part from the seizure of pension fund assets as well as the concentration of ownership in the hands of Fidesz-connected oligarchs. The same index notes a marked decline in government integrity measures, placing Hungary into the oppressed territory on those sub- indices, with a score dramatically worse than in 2009. While Mr. Rohac observed that corruption is a problem across central Europe and across post-communist countries, Hungary’s case is notable for the extent to which corruption has been embedded into the political system, centralized, connected to the ruling party, and has served as a mechanism of political patronage and political mobilization. “[T]here is something special about the nexus of legal patronage and graft and authoritarianism. The two cannot be separated.” Panelists also described something of a paradox. On the one hand, the Orban government has exploited EU funds to build its corrupt oligarchy. Tax and procurement-related irregularities have been cited by the EU anti-corruption agency OLAF as the source of millions in suspect deals involving Orban’s family and friends, many of which also involve Russian state actors. On the other hand, the EU – precisely because it is not a federal government but depends on the consent of the EU member states – has limited ability to rein in this corruption and hybrid forms of governance. Mr. Rohac asserted that this embrace of crony authoritarianism by Hungary is a direct threat to U.S. interests in the region as well as to the West’s interests more broadly. He rejected the notion that competing for positive influence in the region means we should not hold our allies to high standards. He suggested that such a view is enormously detrimental because it’s precisely the authoritarianism, the graft, and the cronyism that opens the way for foreign revisionist powers to enter Hungary and influence the country, pulling it away from the West.  “The U.S. stood by Central European nations as they liberated themselves from communism in the 1990s, in the 90s when they joined the ranks of self-governing free nations of the West,” he observed. “The idea that the U.S. should now either be silent or cheerleader for policies that are now driving Hungary away from the West strikes me as a particularly misguided one.” Ms. Corke described the concerns about trends in Hungary and other countries in the Euro-Atlantic region which led to the formation of a bipartisan group, the Transatlantic Democracy Group, focused on democratic erosion and the need for U.S. leadership.  She joined with 70 signers for NATO’s 70th anniversary on a declaration to reaffirm commitment to democracy.  Ms. Corke is sometimes asked, “why is your group so concerned about Hungary? It’s a small country. Why are you so concerned about Central European University?” She observed that Central European University is a joint American-Hungarian institution and Victor Orban’s campaign against it is a highly symbolic move against a vital institution founded to promote the transatlantic values of democracy, openness, and equality of opportunity and was therefore a direct challenge to the United States. She concluded that Moscow is using Hungary and other NATO members as backdoors of influence, and that Hungary’s centralized, top-down state has enabled an increasingly centralized, top-down system of corruption. Ms. Corke also suggested that a lesson learned from recent developments in the region is that transparency is a necessary, but alone insufficient, condition to fight corruption.  She asserted that the concept of a linear progression of democracy is outdated and new approaches to supporting civil society are needed. In addition, Ms. Hooper stated that while the Obama-era policy of limited high-level engagement precluded some of the Hungarian government’s controversial actions, it did not appear to motivate fundamental change. The Trump-era policy of transactional engagement devoid of values has fared no better, she said, and the U.S. should therefore re-examine its policy toward Hungary.  First, the United States should reinvest in democracy promotion.  Second, the United States should announce publicly that it is reintroducing support for civil society in the region, and specifically in Hungary, due to a decline in the government’s ability to or interest in protecting democratic institutions.  Third, Congress should be more vocal and pointed in expressing its concern and even alarm in Hungary’s antidemocratic movement and should support for individuals such as journalists or other members of watchdog organizations that are targeted by government campaigns or blacklists.  Finally, the United States should not shy away from applying targeted sanctions, such as the Global Magnitsky law, when clear lines are crossed. When visa bans were used against some officials in 2014, they had an impact in Hungary. Background materials available for the briefing included panelist biographies; Department of State materials including statements by Secretary Michael Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein; recent Helsinki commission statements and publications; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum FAQs on the Holocaust in Hungary.

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