Browder vows to fight Swiss legal co-operation with Russia

Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in a Russian jail after exposing a huge tax fraud. Keystone

Switzerland’s Federal Prosecutor plans to share highly sensitive testimony and witness statements relating to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, and the huge Russian tax fraud he exposed, with the Kremlin. 

Sam Jones

The move runs counter to the guidance of four resolutions by the Council of Europe, of which Switzerland is a member, as well as guidance from Interpol. Both bodies have condemned Russian attempts to manipulate European legal procedures to smear the name of Magnitsky and attack his former colleague, William Browder, the US-born British investor, who has become one of the Kremlin’s most vocal international adversaries. 

The Swiss Federal Prosecutor does not publicly disclose its co-operation in investigations with foreign states. 

However, the Financial Times has seen copies of letters it has sent to lawyers in Zurich detailing its intentions. A representative of Mr Browder confirmed their authenticity. 

The Federal Prosecutor’s office said it had received several letters rogatory from Russian authorities, but declined to comment on their scope or content. 

The revelation comes on the eve of a process next week to impeach the federal prosecutor himself, Michael Lauber, one of the most powerful figures in Switzerland. 

Mr Lauber is under intense pressure over his mishandling of his office’s blockbuster investigation into corruption at Fifa, which nearly collapsed as a result of his conduct and allegations of a wide-ranging cover-up. 

Questions over his impartiality in regard to Russia have also dogged him in recent months. 

Cause célèbre

Over the past decade, Mr Browder’s fight with the Russian government has become an international cause célèbre. Switzerland is one of its key battlegrounds. Mr Browder has said that corrupt Russian officials salted away millions in ill-gotten gains in the wealthy — and still secretive — Alpine state. 

Mr Browder’s investment fund, Hermitage Capital, was defrauded of $230m by senior officials in the Russian interior ministry in 2008. When Magnitsky, the fund’s lawyer, exposed them, Russian police arrested him. He died in jail in 2009 without trial. 

The 2012 US “Magnitsky Act”, which Mr Browder subsequently lobbied for, is one of Washington’s most powerful weapons against the Kremlin: dozens of high-ranking Russian officials have been sanctioned under its auspices. 

In an apparent reprisal, Russian authorities launched criminal cases against Mr Browder. In 2013 and 2017, Russian courts convicted him in absentia of tax evasion and fraud. Magnitsky, despite being already dead, was also tried in 2013, and found guilty. 

Russian prosecutors have attempted to have Mr Browder arrested or detained on several occasions in Europe, using existing multilateral law enforcement procedures to try and secure his extradition. 

Mr Browder’s lawyers have told authorities in Bern they intend to fight the proposed co-operation with Russia. 

“The request for mutual legal assistance . . . is thus clearly part of the policy of persecution and reprisals carried out by Russian authorities against our clients, [who are] ‘guilty’ [only] in their commitment to fight the impunity of those responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky,” says a letter sent to the Federal Prosecutor on May 1. 

Sensitive evidence

The Russian request covers sensitive evidence and testimony taken as part of the long-running Swiss investigation into the Hermitage fraud, first initiated at Mr Browder’s behest in 2011. 

Switzerland was an important conduit through which money from the fraud was laundered, he alleges. 

So far, no charges have been brought by Swiss authorities. 

Mr Browder has become concerned about the lack of progress in Switzerland. If charges are not filed in the case next year, the case will lapse under a Swiss statute of limitations. 

In 2018, lawyers for the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky campaign, which Mr Browder heads, filed a petition to have the Swiss prosecutor leading the investigation, Patrick Lamon — a key lieutenant of Mr Lauber — recused because of possible bias. 

The request was rejected this March. Mr Lamon has denied any such bias. 

Russian gifts

Last year, Mr Lamon’s top Russia expert was convicted of improperly accepting gifts from Russian counterparts, including a lavish Siberian bear-hunting trip on the Kamchatka Peninsula. 

The case drew scrutiny to Mr Lamon and Mr Lauber’s own connections to Russia, including a 2014 incident when Mr Lauber took the federal jet — reserved ordinarily for the Swiss government — on a trip to Irkutsk. Photographs from the time show the prosecutor and Mr Lamon posing casually with senior Russian officials on a fishing expedition on Lake Baikal. 

On a 2017 visit to Moscow, Mr Lauber was given a huge set of porcelain that was so large it could not travel on the plane back with the prosecutor to Switzerland and had to be stored in the Moscow embassy for months, according to the conservative Swiss newspaper NZZ. 

Mr Lauber has condemned recent criticism of him as a “full frontal assault”. “In my opinion it is an infringement of the independence of the office of the Federal Prosecutor,” he told a press conference last May. 

Mr Browder’s relations with Swiss officialdom have been strained in recent years: in 2018, he was detained at the Swiss border, after giving a speech on human rights in Geneva. 

Border guards interrogated him on topics of interest to the Russian government, he said at the time on Twitter. Russian authorities had had requests to detain and question Mr Browder on the same topics rejected already by other European states, he said. 

Earlier this year, Mr Browder said he had been warned, based on an assessment by British counter-terrorism officials, over heightened risks to his person at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, from Russian intelligence. 

Scant details of an alleged espionage operation by Russian agents at the event, which had been months in the planning, emerged in January, just days before the WEF was due to open. Local police confirmed reports of suspicious activity by Russians posing as plumbers, later found to be carrying diplomatic passports. 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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