American-born ex-hedge fund manager Bill Browder says he feared being turned over to Russian authorities by then-US president Donald Trump after Russian president Vladimir Putin floated a bizarre interrogation exchange proposal during their infamous 2018 summit in Helsinki, Finland.
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book reported in The TimesMr Browder recalled being in the United States during Mr Trump’s summit and receiving a slew of incoming text messages, emails and other messages from concerned friends offering him temporary housing and shelter.
“What the hell was going on? I found the earliest email about the summit between Trump and Putin that was taking place in Finland. The subject was to the point: ‘Putin talking about you now’.”
Thousands of miles away, Mr Putin had invoked Mr Browder’s name in response to a question from a US reporter, who’d asked whether he’d considered allowing 12 Russians who’d been indicted for interfering in the 2016 US election to be extradited to America for trial.
He said he’d allow the 12 Russians — all military intelligence officers — to be questioned by US officials if he could have his own people question Mr Browder in kind.
Mr Trump replied: “I think that’s an incredible offer”.
For Mr Browder, who’d become a frequent target for Mr Putin for advocating for anti-corruption legislation known as the Sergei Magnitsky Act, such a response was ominous, and he quickly told his wife he believed he needed to leave the US immediately.
“If he got me, he would have me thrown into a Russian prison, where I would be tortured and eventually killed. These were the things I knew for certain,” he wrote. “What I didn’t know was if Trump would follow through on this ‘incredible offer’ and, if he attempted to, whether America’s legal institutions were strong enough to stand up to him.”
He would spend the rest of that day explaining why Mr Putin wanted him back in Russia to a series of television outlets, but remained “terrified” of the possibility that Mr Trump would follow through and order him detained for extradition to Russia.
The next day, Mr Browder wrote that he felt as if the “floor had fallen out from under” him after then-White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Mr Trump was still considering the exchange, but felt some relief when a state department spokesperson called the proposal — and allegations made against Mr Browder and others by Mr Putin — “absolutely absurd”.
Sergei Magnitsky was a tax adviser tasked by Mr Browder to find out how his company Hermitage Capital Management had become unwittingly embroiled in a $230m tax fraud against the Russian state. When Magnitsky discovered evidence suggesting Russian government officials were behind it, he himself was arrested and imprisoned. In 2009 he died in prison, apparently beaten to death by prison orderlies after months of mistreatment.
Since then Mr Browder has led efforts to establish the Magnitsky Act in countries including the US, the UK and Canada, which imposes sanctions on Russian officials thought to have been involved in his killing and in the original fraud.