(Corrects case number in second paragraph)
By Stelios Orphanides
Hermitage Capital founder Bill Browder said Cyprus should stop cooperating with Moscow in Russian “politically motivated” criminal proceeding against him and his partner Ivan Cherkasov and instead support efforts by other countries in tracing Russian illicit funds.
The investor-turned-activist who heads a worldwide campaign for justice in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the 37-year-old Russian lawyer who died in prison after exposing a multi-million tax fraud in Russia eight years ago, said that he was seeking an emergency injunction at the Nicosia district court to prevent Cyprus from cooperating with Russia. The case, 3325/2017, is set for Monday.
Browder, who was commenting in a telephone interview on Thursday, said that the Cypriot police, who two years ago, accompanied by Russian police officers, raided the offices of Hermitage’s former lawyers to obtain documents related to a number of affiliated companies, “are either misinformed or under some kind of influence and are operating in contradiction to Interpol, the UK government, the German government and the Dutch government on the same issues who haven’t cooperated”.
“Thankfully, Cyprus has independent courts where the judges can look at this objectively and fairly and hopefully rule against the Cyprus police and the attorney-general,” he said.
A month ago, police sent a questionnaire to the Cypriot law firm that previously represented Hermitage Capital requesting information about financial transactions involving several subsidiaries of Hermitage Capital and activities of Browder and his associates.
Browder was barred from entering Russia where he ran an investment fund in late 2005 and secretly ordered the liquidation of its assets the following year, according to his book “Red Notice”. In 2007, Russian police raided the offices of Hermitage in Moscow, seized documents and the company stamps and with their use they became owners of three Hermitage subsidiaries. They subsequently filed a false application for a $230m (€192m) tax refund, which they immediately received. After Magnitsky uncovered the fraud, the police officers he implicated arrested him and left him to die in prison without access to medical care as his health deteriorated. Some of the stolen funds were brought out of Russia via the Cypriot banking system. Interpol refuses Russia’s requests in relation to Browder.
In September 2013, former Manhattan Attorney Preet Bharara opened a case against the Cyprus-based Prevezon Holdings on the grounds that it received almost €2m of the stolen funds which resulted in a $6m settlement four months ago. US President Donald Trump, investigated for his alleged ties to Russia, fired Bharara in March.
Lawyer Christos Pourgourides, the former Disy lawmaker who is meanwhile representing Browder, asked Minister of Justice and Public Order Ionas Nicolaou to cease the investigations against Browder and his previous lawyers who had been subpoenaed to deliver documents to the police.
“No state that applies the rule of law should cooperate with the Russian authorities and thus facilitate their vile work,” aiming at trying Browder, close associates in absentia, and Magnitsky posthumously, Pourgourides told the minister in a letter dated December 17, 2015.
In his February 10, 2016 response, Nicolaou said that he could not satisfy the request as he received assurances from the Russian prosecutor general that “there is no political foundation or political motivation” behind the proceedings.
Attorney-General Costas Clerides declined to comment and referred to the Ministry of Justice.
In a telephone interview on Friday, Nicolaou said that Cyprus was not passing Russian authorities information related to the Magnitsky case and instead has received related information from Russia.
“The evidence given to Russian authorities were not related to Magnitsky,” he said. “They are related to the purchase of Gazprom shares. We didn’t give any data on how the shares were purchased, or the Magnitsky crime”.
Nicolaou, married to sister of Christos Kinanis, a Nicosia-based lawyer who represented Prevezon until eight years ago, categorically dismissed the idea of being involved in a conflict of interest in the handling of the case.
Kinanis said that his law firm had no involvement in Prevezon’s operations. “The directors and registered shareholders were the clients directly and we didn’t know what they were doing, at least in the two years they were with us,” he said. “We are very careful with our customers and if we discover the slightest (irregularity), we kick them out”.
As part of Browder’s campaign for justice for Magnitsky, the US Congress in 2012 passed the Magnisky Act, which former President Barrack Obama signed into law, which bans individuals deemed responsible for the lawyer’s death from entering the US or using its financial system. This angered Russian President Vladimir Putin who in response had a law banning adoption of Russian children by US families passed by the Duma.
In 2014, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asked governments of its member states to follow the US example and also “adopt targeted sanctions against individuals” involved in Magnitsky’s death, including visa bans and the freezing of accounts.
“The Cypriot government should read documents produced by the Council of Europe,” Browder said and added that as a result of Russia’s influence on the island, he would never come to Cyprus, which he described “a Russian colony”.
“I would feel completely unsafe travelling to Cyprus,” he said. “The Cypriot police are a division of the Russian police in my opinion and I believe that if I went to Cyprus my life would be in danger and would risk being sent back to Russia”.
The police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
President Nicos Anastasiades who was the first EU head of state to visit Russia in early 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, is scheduled to visit Moscow next month.