Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Putin must be delighted that Sweden does not want to give Bill Browder "safe passage"

After reading this piece of news in the Wall Street Journal, one would think that the only option for the Swedish government is to ask State Secretary Martin Valfridsson in the Ministry of Justice to quickly announce that he made a mistake:

Four years ago, Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was killed in prison by his jailers for trying to expose a $230 million fraud. Not satisfied with that outcome, Mr. Putin put Magnitsky posthumously on trial and convicted him, along with his client Bill Browder of Hermitage Capital, of tax evasion. Mr. Browder, who remains very much alive, was expelled from Russia eight years ago, but Moscow apparently isn't done with him. After his "conviction," Russia sought an international warrant for his arrest from Interpol, which sensibly refused to become complicit in Mr. Putin's campaign.

Mr. Browder's real crime is to have spent the past four years seeking justice for Magnitsky. He pushed for the Magnitsky Act passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law in 2012. The Act imposes financial sanctions and travel bans on Russians guilty of human-rights violations. Last month, federal prosecutors used the act to seize several pieces of Manhattan real estate owned by a Cyprus-based shell company allegedly linked to Magnitsky's jailers.

Mr. Browder has been pressing countries in Europe to adopt a similar approach, and earlier this year he was invited to testify to the Swedish Parliament about the need for a Swedish Magnitsky Act. As has become his habit, Mr. Browder sought assurance from Stockholm that he would not be arrested and shipped off to Russia.

Martin Valfridsson, State Secretary in the Swedish Ministry of Justice, twice declined the request, claiming that he was not permitted under Swedish law to provide advance notice that any particular person would not be arrested. Mr. Valfridsson's letters express all the appropriate concerns about Magnitsky's case and fate, but in the end he seeks refuge in a different set of pieties about the rule of law and Sweden's international obligations.

Mr. Putin must be amused. The Russian strongman understands the West's attachment to the rule of law and its sensitivities about international obligations, and he is perfectly willing to use that sensibility to his advantage. Part of the purpose of hounding Magnitsky in his grave and Mr. Browder in the West is to use the pretense of legality to subvert a genuine rule of law.

Mr. Browder has already sought, and received, a "safe passage" letter from the German government. The Netherlands offered him one unsolicited. And Britain, where he lives and is now a citizen, has made clear that it will take no part in Russia's legal gamesmanship. In refusing to do likewise, Sweden is allowing itself to act as Mr. Putin's cat's paw. Far from upholding the rule of law, it is subverting it to Mr. Putin's whims.

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