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Bill Browder Forces Cancellation of Film Critical of Him Minutes Before Screening in Brussels

"... the case against Browder that Nekrasov unintentionally stumbled upon when making the film is clearly so persuasive and so massive that even some leading members of the anti-Putin coalition in Europe feel strongly that the truth must out, whatever the consequences."

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.

Without crossing the Channel from his headquarters in London, William Browder, chairman of Hermitage Capital, unrelenting crusader behind the 2012 Magnitsky Act in the United States and the lobbyist behind two resolutions of the European Parliament to pass a similar measure going back to 2012, succeeded yesterday in pulling off a stunning show of force in the Parliament building: cancellation of the screening of the film “The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes” just minutes before invitees entered the auditorium.

Consequently the event took an unexpected but nonetheless very informative turn, which has barely been touched upon in television reporting of the non-event that followed soon after. Instead of watching and then discussing a film, the few of us who showed up under the circumstances were drawn precisely to the person of the absent puppet master, Bill Browder.

We heard about the inconsistencies of the Magnitsky narrative that Browder has peddled in all venues, and the eureka moment of the film maker that led him to change the message of his film mid-way through production into what ultimately became a scathing critique of Browder, and also a serious critique of the entire concept of applying personal sanctions against alleged human rights abusers without due process, as was the case in the compilation of the Magnitsky List.

Last but not least, we were given tantalizing details of what was behind the last minute decision to cancel the showing and what now puts in jeopardy the film’s broadcast on the Franco-German television station ARTE on 3 May, which as of this morning was still announced on their website along with a precis of the film and a brief streaming trailer.

Let us begin with the door and the door mat. In the rush of journalists to hear from the star of the hour, Russian film director Andrei Nekrasov, they gave scant attention to the organizer and hostess of the day, Finnish Member of the European Parliament Heidi Hautala. And yet her hosting the event was in its own way as important, possibly more important than anything that Nekrasov could say: by definition, his medium of expression, his art, is precisely what we were denied, whereas politics and finely honed words are the life blood of MEPs.

Madam deputy Hautala was one of the founders of the Greens movement in her native Finland and as MEP belongs to the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance. The dominant force within that bloc is the German Greens, who in terms of foreign policy orientation are resolutely anti-Putin, or if we put subtletiesaside, are resolutely anti-Russian. In this group, Hautala serves as vice-chair under the leadership of Rebecca Harms (MEP-Germany), one of the most active Russia-bashers in the Parliament.

Like the Greens generally, aside from environmental issues, where Hautala has done a good deal of work in the Finnish legislature, she has taken a strong interest in defending human rights globally, including in Russia. She mentioned in her opening remarks yesterday that she was the first MEP to call for sanctions against Russia over the death in detention of Sergei Magnitsky and to this day she favors targeted sanctions against human rights violators, though she sets 4 operating principles for this to be workable, all of which come down to adhering to the rule of law: they must be verifiable, proving the connection of the persons to the violation; they must be transparent, so that everyone can judge the grounds; they must provide access to remedy for the targeted persons; and they must contain a sunset clause or duration period for possible reevaluation of the grounds.

Hautala also mentioned that she is one of 17 MEPs on Russia’s black list of 89 European politicians and influential persons. She complained that she has never received from Russian authorities the individual justifications on why she is on the list and has no access to a remedy to appeal that arbitrary decision.

Thus, at a minimum, we witnessed yesterday in Hautala’s organizing the presentation of a film known to question the whole Browder narrative of the Magnitsky case an extraordinary act of political courage and show of integrity by someone who otherwise wears her anti-Russian positions on her sleeve. Moreover, it is not for nothing that Hautala described herself at the conclusion of the session as a “dissident” and stressed that the event was solely hers, without the support of her parliamentary bloc.

What she did not say and what surely few if any others in the auditorium understood is the amount of effort and arm-twisting it must have taken for MEP Hautala to secure the splendid auditorium seating approximately 200 and equipped with 21st century simultaneously translation and recording facilities for the showing of the film. Such rooms are in great demand within the EP and normally are allocated only to the main parliamentary fractions, not to individual MEPs, who consider themselves lucky to get conference rooms seating 20.

It also bears mention exactly how Hautala exercised her rights as organizer. The event was a previewing for MEPs and others to whom they passed along the invitation, a select and privileged audience who were given an opportunity to engage the director in Q&A. But Hautala also admitted to the auditorium several of the most authoritative and interested representatives of the other side of the Browder/Magnitsky story. The event was by registration only, meaning that she could have quietly eliminated anyone she wished. And yet in our midst was none other than Pavel Karpov, one of the two Ministry of Interior officers who were accused by Browder of overseeing the torture and murder of Magnitsky, and of doing so to cover up their theft of $230 million in assets from his Hermitage Capital operation in Moscow which Magnitsky was said to have been investigating.

As could be anticipated, Karpov used the opportunity to explain his challenge to these allegations as unsubstantiated and how his bringing of defamation charges against Browder in London courts never was heard. Moreover, Natalya Veselnitskaya, a Moscow lawyer known to Nekrasov and evidently also to Hautula, was given the floor to issue a lengthy denunciation of Browder for his crimes of egregious tax evasion that were the motive for his creating the Magnitsky case. Veselnitskaya is the attorney of Denis Katsyv, the son of a Vice President of Russian Railways whose assets in the US were frozen under the Magnitsky Act under allegations that he had somehow enjoyed a share of the purloined Hermitage Capital money.

Hautala also admitted to her session Russian electronic and print media journalists, including, most significantly, Yevgeni Popov, the Vesti television presenter and director of a hard-hitting documentary entitled The Browder Effect which was aired on the flagship Pervy kanal state channel on 13 April. Popov flew in for the European Parliament event and later in the evening his interview taken with Nekrasov on the streets of Brussels was part of a featured news item on the cancellation of the film’s screening that was still being repeated this morning.

From all of the foregoing, I draw three conclusions. First, the case against Browder that Nekrasov unintentionally stumbled upon when making the film is clearly so persuasive and so massive that even some leading members of the anti-Putin coalition in Europe feel strongly that the truth must out, whatever the consequences.

Second, we owe a debt of gratitude to MEP Hautala for her show of integrity and for following the truth wherever it leads. In return, we urge the Russian government to heed her call and reexamine its decision with respect to her listing. While in the U.S., the Russian black list was a source of mirth as Congressmen said they would gladly forego vacations or real estate opportunities in Russia, from her words, it is clear that Hautala does not enjoy what she considers undeserved ignominy.

Third, given the Russian action against Hautala, given the U.S. action against Karpov and others on the tit-for-tat lists, the notion of targeted sanctions on specific individuals is necessarily deeply flawed in practice even if it appears praiseworthy to some in theory. In practice, politicians seek instant results. They have neither the skills and experience of courtroom judges nor the time for scrupulous case by case evaluations of those whom they target. Thus Hautala’s criteria for “just” sanctions will never be met. Lynch law necessarily operates. Human rights watchers everywhere, beware!

Now let us turn our attention to the St. Petersburg film director Andrei Nekrasov, who is at the center of the storm. Nekrasov is an internationally recognized artist who has won prizes for dramas, documentaries and arts programs in Germany and France. His work has been presented at festivals around the world. He took parts of his professional education in France and the UK. He is fluent in German, French and English in addition to his native Russian.

In his home country, Nekrasov has a reputation as a nonconformist. He did an important film on the Litvinenko case in 2007. Another film of his argues that the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings were organized by the KGB successor organization (FSB) to justify the second war in Chechnya that brought Vladimir Putin to power.

In a word, Nekrasov has not been a friend, still less a “stooge” of the Putin regime. Indeed, as he explained at the start of his brief speech, before taking the assignment to do a film about Magnitsky for the ARTE television channel Nekrasov had friendly relations with Bill Browder, whom he had met a number of times in different settings, and he fully believed in Browder’s narrative of the murder of his “lawyer” over Magnitsky’s investigation into the theft of his company’s assets by crooked Ministry of Internal Affairs officials.

Nekrasov explained that his eureka moment came in the middle of shooting the film, when Browder’s people handed him a copy of the affidavit signed by Sergei Magnitsky that was said to have led to his murder in detention. The introduction to the document laid out precisely that argument, but the content, the actual text signed by Magnitsky, said nothing whatever about his investigating the theft of $230 million and made no charges whatsoever against Ministry of Internal Affairs officers. That glaring discrepancy prompted Nekrasov to gather more and more evidence, leading ultimately to his conclusion that the Magnitsky case was a sham fabricated by Browder, that there was no murder, that Magnitsky’s death was a case of negligence and nothing more sinister, the sort of thing that happens quite routinely in U.S. and other prisons around the world, however sad that may be.

Moreover, this discovery set Nekrasov’s mind to thinking about how and why what was now obvious to him was hidden to all others through whose hands the facts, factoids and allegations of the Magnitsky affair had passed over the past seven years. His inescapable conclusion was the explanation was to be found only in blind anti-Russian prejudice, the denigration not only of the country’s leader but of its entire political establishment if not the nation as a whole. Nekrasov began to wonder how anyone could accept as reasonable the assumption that in that country of 146 million people there was not a single honest or professionally competent judge, not a single policeman who was not a crook.

In this connection, Nekrasov expressed his concern for his own future welfare in consequence of the publicity surrounding the film he has produced and the change in political orientation that followed his discovery of unpleasant truths. Not in the West, he says. There he is confident that his professional reputation will carry him through. But in Russia, where, he says, there are Putin-hating, pro-Browder people who are going to be pursue him. What he meant was explained to me by a member of his entourage as we were leaving the room: the Intelligentsia who populate the ‘creative class,’ where film directors socialize will not forgive his betrayal of the cause.

Finally, let us consider what I have called the tantalizing disclosures of how and why the screening of the film was cancelled last night. This came out of the answer to questions directed at both MEP Heidi Kautala and film director Andrei Nekrasov.

No, Kautala told us, it was not any action taken by the President of the European Parliament or his colleagues, all of whom surely took a dim view of the exercise in truth and reconciliation of the MEP from Finland.

Nekrasov put it down to two urgent and last minute appeals.

The first, significant but in no way decisive, was a protest from MEP Marieluise Beck (Germany) a leading member of the Greens in the Bundestag and like-minded person to the aforementioned Rebecca Harms, who called upon Nekrasov to remove the segment of the film in which he interviewed her. For Nekrasov, Beck had become emblematic of everything wrong with the position held by Browder’s defenders in Europe. When he confronted her with the discrepancies, with the reasons he had changed his view of the

Magnitsky affair, Beck insouciantly replied that ‘this is just details’ about which she did not care and that the overriding fact remained the same: that Magnitsky died in prison.

The second and decisive intervention came from the general director of the main sponsor of the film project, the German television channel ZDF. He told Nekrasov to stop the showing the film because he had been threatened by Browder’s lawyers with law suits that would spell the financial ruin of the company.

Nekrasov expressed his surprise and alarm that Browder had the money and the contacts to so intimidate the backers of his film. But his own position vis-à-vis Browder is now inescapably one of self-defense rather than slinking away. Browder has publicly claimed that the film is flawed by inadmissible fabrications and falsifications. It is Nekrasov’s stated intent to take Browder to court for defamation.

It is unclear whether The Magnitsky Case: Behind the Scenes will be aired on ARTE on 3 May given the vast resources Browder has mobilized to prevent it. However, we may take as a given from yesterday’s non-event that one of two charges made against Browder by Russian state television on 13 April is winning strong support in the West: that his creation of the Magnitsky affair was fraudulent from the beginning and was intended to cover his own tracks of criminal activity and fend off Russian demands for extradition to face pending prosecution.

The open question is whether the second allegation against Browder in Popov’s film can be made to stick: namely that William Browder was a contractor working with/for British intelligence (MI6) and the CIA as from 1996, and that since 2006 he has been controlling the Russian non-systemic opposition leader Alexei Navalny on a mission to destabilize the Russian government and prepare the way for regime change. In these matters, if verifiably authentic evidence is presented in Moscow, one can be sure that Mr. Browder has no chance of muzzling those who oppose him.

Update posted April 29 by the author:

A reader of this article in SPD headquarters in Berlin issued an important correction to the text above:  ZDF is not a private company. Rather it is the German public national broadcaster and as such it is in his words 'inconceivable' that it could be bankrupted.  Put in simple English, the director of the ZDF simply behaved in a cowardly manner and caved in to the bluster coming from Browder and his lawyers.

Another reader, in RI, has left a comment that normal legal procedure would be for the prospective plaintiff to wait for the offending film to be made public in one way or another and THEN slap those who organized the release with a libel suit.  The fact that Browder has moved proactively to snuff out the film before its release strongly suggest that he holds a very weak hand. 

May ARTE show more courage in resisting the tyrant.

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