In the light of the recent inquiry that pinned the poisoning of a former KGB agent squarely on Vladimir Putin, Bill Browder, author of Red Notice and noted critic of the Russian president, reflects on his own personal safety, and the wider consequences of continuing to stay quiet in the face of autocratic violence
The recently published results of the Inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London left me with a chilling feeling of déjà vu. Unfortunately it was not my first experience with a Russian state-sponsored killing, nor do I expect it to be the last. As I discovered to my horror in 2009, Putin’s habit of silencing dissidents reaches far and wide.
In 2007, my Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered and exposed a $230 million tax fraud committed by Russian government officials. He was arrested by the same officials he exposed, and tortured for a year in an attempt to get him to retract his testimony and sign a false confession. Sergei refused to back down, and was eventually killed in prison in 2009. The Wall Street Journal called his ordeal ‘a slow assassination’.
After Sergei’s murder I tried everything I could to bring his killers to justice, but everyone involved was exonerated or even promoted by the Putin regime. To circumvent the impunity in Russia I tried to trace the stolen $230 million and have accounts frozen in countries where money was found. This initially seemed like an insurmountable task, until a whistleblower named Alexander Pereplichnyy came forward with some key information which would begin to unlock the puzzle.
As it turns out, Pereplichnyy had been the financial manager for one of the tax officials responsible for the $230 million fraud. The information he provided directly implicated this official, who had sent the stolen money to Switzerland, and enabled the Swiss authorities to open a criminal money-laundering investigation. Pereplichnyy was preparing to testify for the Swiss investigation when he suddenly dropped dead outside his home in Surrey in 2012. He was forty-four years old and in good health. Two post mortems failed to identify the cause of his death.
While Litvinenko was killed with radioactive polonium, leaving nuclear traces of the crime all over London, Pereplichnyy’s killers were more subtle. Traces of a rare poison were found in his stomach. The inquest into his death is still ongoing. What is clear, however, is that Putin will continue to silence his dissidents, by any means necessary. And if the West’s lack of reaction to the Litvinenko Inquiry is anything to go by, these Russian state-sponsored killings will continue to go unpunished.
Since I’m still fighting to expose these crimes, there is a real possibility that I will be next on Putin’s hit list. There is very little I can do to protect myself, but one thing I have done is to write my book, Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy. At least if I’m killed, everyone will know who is responsible, and why I was silenced. The effort required to deflect blame for my murder could be enough to keep me alive. But the only way to truly protect critics of the Putin regime like myself is for the world to wake up to the evil of Putin, rather than trying to appease him. Until there are real consequences for the murders, thefts, and criminal activity inherent in the Russian kleptocracy, many people will continue to die all over the world.