Bill Browder: Inside the Arrest of 'Putin's Number One Enemy'

The Magnitsky Act architect reveals the details of his surprise detainment in Madrid

Browder testifying during a Senate Judiciary Committee Russian election interference in July 2017. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty

Bill Browder was in his central Madrid hotel room Wednesday morning when a knock came on the door. It was just after 9 a.m.; a couple of hours later, Browder was scheduled to meet with Jose Grinda, the Spanish prosecutor who specializes in deep investigations of Russian organized crime and corruption. But outside Browder's room stood a hotel manager and two police officers. "Mr. Browder, you're under arrest," one of the officers said. When Browder asked why, it was clear the officers spoke very little English; Browder speaks no Spanish. Finally, one of them managed to say, "Interpol, Russia."

Browder's trip to Spain was part of his ongoing campaign to seek justice for a former employee, Sergei Magnitsky, the 37-year-old Russian lawyer persecuted by Kremlin authorities after blowing the whistle on a $230 million tax scam. Browder, who has employed a forensic investigator to track down every penny – including $14 million that flowed into Manhattan real estate – says there are 15 countries with ongoing criminal investigations and roughly $40 million in frozen assets. Grinda is just getting started on the investigation in Spain, where Browder believes another 30 million Euros were stashed away in the real estate market. (Among the officials Grinda has previously investigated is Alexander Torshin, the Russian politician and Mafia "Godfather" who befriended senior leadership of the National Rifle Association and tried to arrange a backdoor meeting between Trump and Putin.)

In the back of the police car, Browder realized he couldn't open the doors from the inside, and began to worry. "My main concern was whether they were real police officers," he says, "or some type of Russian kidnapping squad dressed up as police officers." As they weaved through side streets in old Madrid, Browder posted a picture of the car's interior on Twitter. "They won't tell me which station," he wrote.

It turned out they weren't taking him to a police station at all, but rather a nondescript office building, where the officers told him he needed to have a "medical check." Browder refused and demanded a lawyer. After the officers made a few phone calls, they took him to the police station. It was only then that Browder finally relaxed. An Interpol arrest warrant – also known as a red notice – had once again been issued by Russia. In 2013, Russian authorities convicted Browder in absentia for fraud and tax evasion, sentencing him to nine years in prison; Browder, who describes himself as "Putin's No. 1 enemy" in his fittingly titled memoir, Red Notice, has been dodging Kremlin-orchestrated legal issues like this ever since. When he walked out of the police station, after less than two hours in custody, he snapped a quick photo for Twitter and headed to Grinda's office, only 45 minutes late to his meeting.

Magnitsky's fate transformed Browder from the biggest foreign investor in Russia to one of the Kremlin's fiercest critics. When Magnitsky was arrested in his modest Moscow apartment, in 2007, he told his wife and two children that he would be home soon. After 538 days in detention, Magnitsky was chained to a bed, repeatedly beaten with rubber batons and later found dead on the floor of a Moscow prison cell. (After his death, Russian prosecutors posthumously convicted Magnitsky on charges of tax evasion.) Three years later, Browder successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, which sought to punish the Russian officials responsible for the lawyer's death by barring them from using the U.S. financial system. (The law was later expanded to allow the president to sanction any official suspected of human rights abuses or significant corruption.)

Back home in London, Browder tells Rolling Stone that he took his arrest as a sign of progress. "It's a retaliatory move for the work that I'm doing for the Magnitsky Act," he says. "It means that the Magnitsky Act is working and we've found the Achilles' heel of the Putin regime." The reason the Kremlin hates Browder is simple: The Magnitsky Act hits corrupt Russian kleptocrats and oligarchs in their unprotected flank. What is the point of stealing a fortune from the Russian people if you can't buy homes in Miami or Manhattan and educate your kids at Ivy League schools all because of some lousy sanctions? "If you look at the pattern of arrest warrants that Russia has issued through Interpol, they generally coincided with major breakthroughs in the Magnitsky case," Browder says. Earlier warrants followed passage of Magnitsky laws in the United States and Canada. This latest round, Browder suspects, is connected to this month's passage of a British law that would allow the United Kingdom to sanction people who commit gross human rights violations. The passage of the "Magnitsky amendment" marks a breakthrough for the U.K., a popular second home of sorts for Kremlin officials and Kremlin-connected oligarchs.

Russia's anti-Magnitsky efforts also culminated in a central moment of the ongoing investigation into collusion between Donald Trump's campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Days after President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law in 2012, Russian lawmakers banned all U.S. adoptions of Russian children, cynically punishing their most vulnerable citizens for political gain. The ill-fated meeting in Trump Tower on June 9th, 2016, where the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton – "part of Russia and its government's support" for the Trump campaign – was allegedly dominated by a 20-minute discussion of the Magnitsky Act. According to Don Jr.'s account of the meeting, the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya "primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children."

Browder's journey from Russian investor to Russian bete noire was as unlikely as it was unexpected. He was the grandson of Earl Browder, the head of the Communist Party in the United States, who served time in prison for passport fraud and recruited agents for Russian intelligence, according to a secret KGB archive. Born in Princeton, New Jersey and raised in Chicago, Browder eschewed his family's ideological roots. He became an avowed capitalist, went to Stanford Business School and became an early investor in post-Soviet Russia; the company he founded, The Hermitage Fund, invested over $4.5 billion in assets at its peak. Before he became Putin's No. 1 enemy, Browder was the Russian president's No. 1 fan. He corrected the "myths" about Russia and Putin's corruption, hailing the arrest of Russia's richest man, the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as a sign of Russia's return to greatness. Things changed in 2005, when Browder was kicked out of Russia for trying to root out corruption at Gazprom, the state-owned natural gas giant. Two years later, Magnitsky disappeared.

Interpol warrants might not be Browder’s only concern. Following the recent poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, there were reports that Browder's name was on some sort of U.K. hit list. Browder brushed aside the rumors. "I would be unsafe anywhere," he says. "There's no country that's safe for me."

Seth Hettena is the author of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, published by Melville House.