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'Crusaders' of Ill Repute: Browder, Menendez, Khodorkovsky

By Dmitry Babich

The recent call by the UK's Prime Minister Theresa May for a new round of sanctions against Russia will most likely fall on a fertile ground in the US the EU.

But as political passions easily sweep away any "pro-Russian" dissent in both the British parliament and the US Congress, one important question remains: are these sanctions (especially the individual ones) legal? Can someone be deprived of private property simply because a certain president or a certain parliament decides to do so?

Making any particular distinction between the standings of the US and the EU on Russia is simply unwise: any hopes for normal treatment from the EU do not have factual basis behind them. On the negative side with the EU, according to the UN's Special Rapporteur, we have the fact that the EU chose to lose  $100 billion on sanctions against Russia. On the positive side with the EU, we have empty words on some "dialogue" with Russia. Interestingly, the EU decided to extend sanctions against 154 Russian citizens and 44 companies  for another 6 months on the same day, September 5, which May chose to accuse two Russians of poisoning the Skripals.

"We will also push for new EU sanctions regimes against those responsible for cyber-attacks and gross human rights violations - and for new listings under the existing regime against Russia," May told her parliament.  

Theresa May used the words like "barbaric acts" or "obfuscation and lies" with great ease. Meanwhile, the suspicions voiced by the Crown Prosecution Service against Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov still need to be proven.  Any direct evidence of Russia's "poisoning the Skripals" (or other "malign activity" of Moscow in Western countries) is still lacking, or at least it has never been produced in public.

Apparently, the Western "sanctioning machines" can work without evidence, as well as without trials and competitive judicial process. We have seen it already.

Examples? The EU sanction list includes 154 Russian persons and 44 organizations. The American one is even longer with 217 "Russian-related individuals and entities," according to the Treasury Department of the US. Not a single trial was held.

And here is the only explanation: the statement from Sigal Mandelker, Under Secretary of the US Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. "Extrajudicial" approach again.

Sigal Mandelker announced, with her charming womanly matter-of-factness, that "hundreds of millions of dollars," which belong to Russian individuals, have ALREADY been blocked in the US. Here are the 'crimes,' punished by this privation of property: "election interference" in the US and the EU; cyber-attacks and "aggression" in Ukraine. And, of course, there is the Skripals' affair, which was the basis for the latest round of sanctions - again without any trial. And let me remind our readers: until the court establishes a certain person's guilt, this person is not considered to be someone who committed a crime.  

Meanwhile, taking someone's property ("hundreds of millions of dollars arrested"!) without a court ruling is a crime in itself. But here we don't have even explanations! In her statement on the matter, Sigal Mandelker does not say anything about the role, which this or that dispossessed individual played in purported election interference, poisonings or cyber-attacks. Instead, she focuses on the position of that individual in the Russian government. A high position is obviously considered by the Treasury Department to be a crime in itself. Let's quote Mandelker's press-release:

"Since January 2017, this Administration has sanctioned 217 Russian-related individuals and entities for a broad range of activities, 200 of which were sanctioned by Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)... In doing so we have targeted a veritable "who's who" of Russia's most prominent companies.  These include... EuroSibEnergo, among the largest independent power companies in Russia; and Surgutneftegaz, a major Russian oil company. Our targets also include the heads of major state-owned banks and energy firms, as well as some of Putin's closest associates.  These figures include Putin affiliates Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg; Putin's current or former son in law Kirill Shamalov...  Dealings with such persons on our Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List, moreover, create exposure to secondary sanctions under CAATSA, meaning that persons who deal with them risk being sanctioned themselves.  Targeting these Russian individuals and entities have made them radioactive, as we have made clear to the world that those who choose to continue to do business with them do so at their own peril."

But is that a sufficient reason for a company to become "radioactive" - the fact of being one of the "largest independent power companies in Russia" or just a "major Russian oil company"? What kind of crime is that - to be "the head of a state-owned company" or, worse, the president's "current or former son in law"? How does that jive with one of the basic Western values - every person's right not to be deprived of his or her property without a court's ruling?

The answer is simple: the recent anti-Russian sanctions of the US and the EU in fact go against the Western values. Besides the already mentioned fact of the absence of legal basis for the arrest of assets or seizure of other property, Russia and Russians are often pronounced guilty by association. This is true not only about numerous anti-Russian resolutions of the Congress. For Donald Trump's own administration, very often it is just about enough to put a Russian person's or a Russian company's name next to the words "North Korea" or "Iran" to make any sanction against them justified.

How can Russia respond? Passivity is not an answer.

In fact, passivity has been our answer far too long. The hopes that anti-Russian stories would die because of the lack of facts - these hopes have proven to be futile. So what, if there are no facts? The Western media has long ago revealed its ability to keep the story going without facts. Media can make up for them by numerous "expert opinions" and tough statements from politicians, which convince an average TV viewer by their sheer numbers and uniform character.   

The Skripals' case has shown how a seemingly small "highly likely" insinuation can have global consequences - without facts and with contradictions. If the British investigators back in May found the hotel where the two Russian suspects lived, why didn't they reveal its name then? Why did they wait until September, when all the traces of the hideous nerve agent Novichok were gone? How do they explain the fact that the new victims got poisoned from the same bottle with Novichok in late June - four months after the suspects left? Nevertheless, police and media kept the story going for 6 months. And now Ms.May is calling all the expelled Russian diplomats "intelligence agents," without any evidence presented.

Until there is impunity for the perpetrators, provocations will continue - with disastrous consequences. And there is an easy way to do away with impunity. The anti-Russian actions have authors - and many of these authors have very questionable reputations. So, the answer could be "to create exposure," if we use the expression of one of Mrs. Mandelker's interlocutors at a Senate's committee meeting on Russia's "malign activity."

Let's take the so called Magnitsky Act - the only quasi-legal foundation for extra-judicial actions against Russian citizens abroad. Russia should constantly remind the Western public that at the root of the Magnitsky Act was none other than an adventurist billionaire, found guilty of embezzlement. Bill Browder, the head of an investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, was sentenced by Russian court to 9 years behind bars for tax evasion in the 1990s and 2000s. Previously an ardent admirer of the Russian president Putin, Browder fled abroad before the Russian justice could get him, suddenly becoming "a crusader against Putin," when charges were pressed against him.

According to the 2013 court verdict, Browder, who operated in Russia between 1996 and 2005, using the services of his late Russian auditor Sergey Magnitsky, evaded taxes for a hefty sum of 552 million rubles (about $ 7.9 million). The businessman was also found guilty of illegally buying shares in the country's natural gas giant Gazprom. According to the law enforcers, that cost Russia at least 3 billion rubles ($43 million).

Transferring huge sums via his accounts on Cyprus, American-born Browder acquired British citizenship in order to evade US taxes on the scale many times bigger than that of the head of Trump's presidential campaign Paul Manafort (who may now face up to 80 years in jail for this). On several occasions, American, Spanish and Cypriot law-enforcers showed interest in Mr Browder's activity, with a brief detainment in Spain and a prohibition (later lifted) on entering the US.   

In August, Cyprus's ministry of justice announced that it would cooperate with Russia in investigating the offshore activities of  Browder's Hermitage Fund on the island.

Alas, Browder is not the only initiator of anti-Russian legislation with spots on his reputation. Robert Menendez, one of the authors of the draft law 'Defending American security From Kremlin Aggression Act" (DASKAA, still to be voted on in autumn 2018), is investigated in the US for corruption, i.e. trading political influence for gifts from a Florida businessman. 

Is anti-Russian rhetoric for these people a convenient way to stay untouched? Somehow, US media, critical of Browder during his Russian years, changed its attitude after he "reinvented himself as a human rights activist." And, as the EU-Observer notes, with huge evidence against him on hand in Russia, Putin-bashing is perhaps the only way for Browder to avoid extradition - using his newly-minted image of a "Putin critic."  

If even the EU-related media sees that, how can Russians overlook the link between another anti-Russian campaign and a sudden improvement in another Big Browder's image? Who was Mikhail Khodorkovsky for Western press before his quarrel with president Putin in 2003? In 2002, Der Spiegel described him as a shady oligarch with "memory holes" for his crimes. Now Khodorkovsky is another anti-Putin crusader who has no problems with Western media. And Western justice, of course.   

Dmitry Babich

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