A new twist in a Russian scandal

October 8, 2009

The Russian Interior Ministry is about to seek the arrest of William Browder, the chief executive of Hermitage Capital Management, for illegally evading taxes. That’s according to a front-page article in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, a leading political-economic daily.

Browder, a British and US citizen who resides in London, has been denied entry into Russia ever since 2005, when his visa was annulled for obscure reasons. His Hermitage Fund, managed by the British bank HSBC, was once the largest portfolio investor in Russia, but has more recently been embroiled in a series of interconnected scandals.

Today’s newspaper article, based on anonymous sources within the Russian police, is evidently the latest shot in a long-running media war that has pitched Hermitage against elements of the Russian police. Over the last year and a half, the British investment fund has made a series of sensational allegations, claiming that senior Russian police officers were involved in a corruption scam designed to fleece the Russian budget of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Following these claims, Russian authorities have been busy upping the pressure against the Fund. A lawyer working for Hermitage in Russia, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested last November, and his trial in Moscow is due to begin shortly. Today’s Kommersant article lays out the case that the police intend to bring against Magnitsky, which relates to alleged underpayment of taxes by two Hermitage subsidiaries several years ago.

According to the sources cited in the newspaper, Browder is also implicated, and investigators now intend to approach Interpol with a request to place him on the international wanted list. The paper quotes Hermitage’s view that the case is fabricated “to discredit Hermitage Capital”.

Given the circumstances, the latest allegations against Browder will command little credibility outside Russia. According to court documents recently submitted by Hermitage in the US, the criminal case against Magnitsky was initiated by the same police officers previously accused by Hermitage.

If Russia does request Browder’s arrest and extradition, legal authorities in Britain are also likely to consider the findings of a recent report into the case by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which slams Russia’s criminal justice system. The report states that Hermitage was “the victim of the corruption and collusion of senior police officials and organised criminals.”

In any case, this isn’t the first time that anonymous police sources have made similar claims about Browder in Kommersant. In April last year, the newspaper ran an article that alleged that a Russian arrest warrant had already been issued for the British fund manager, and an international one would be requested shortly. However, a Moscow police spokeswoman subsequently denied that any such warrant had been issued, and nothing more was heard about it.

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