Bill Browder threatens legal action over Swiss bank accounts linked to Magnitsky scandal

High-profile Kremlin critic and investor Bill Browder has threatened Credit Suisse and UBS with legal action for breaching US sanctions if they unfreeze accounts belonging to three Russian clients accused of a huge tax fraud against his investment company.

The two Swiss banks hold assets worth more than $24m, which Mr Browder says were gained from fraud perpetrated in Russia against his investment business, Hermitage Capital, in 2007.

The banks and their “officers and employees” will be open to “civil and criminal penalties in the United States, as well as to civil actions by third parties with an interest in this matter” if they release any money from the accounts concerned, Hermitage wrote on behalf of Mr Browder in letters seen by the Financial Times.

The Hermitage fraud became an international cause célèbre after the death in custody of Mr Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky.

Mr Browder has been a tireless campaigner against the Russian government ever since, and a sponsor of sanctions legislation in the US and Europe aimed at punishing corrupt Russian officials and targeting the financial institutions and networks they use.

In 2012, the US passed the “Magnitsky Act”, which targets the international assets of people involved in human rights abuses and bans them from entering the US.

In a controversial decision last week, Switzerland’s federal prosecutor dropped all ongoing investigations into three Russians allegedly connected with the fraud against Hermitage — Denis Katsyv, Dmitry Klyuev and Vladlen Stepanov — who Mr Browder accuses of having spirited away millions to accounts Switzerland. The men argue that the money is unconnected to Hermitage and have rejected Mr Browder’s allegations.

The prosecutor’s office has proposed fining the men a fraction of their assets held in Swiss accounts in return for dropping more serious charges. The amounts, it says, proportionally represent the amount of unexplained wealth in the accounts that may have been illegally obtained. The prosecutor intends to take 13 per cent of the assets held by Mr Stepanov, and 1 per cent of those held by Mr Katsyv. The prosecutor proposes to deduct no money from Mr Klyuev. 

It is also weighing whether to drop Hermitage as a plaintiff in its proceedings. This would make it impossible for the firm to appeal against the prosecutor’s decision.

The decision paves the way for accounts linked to the three men held at UBS and Credit Suisse, which had been frozen at the request of the prosecutor, to be unblocked.

Both Credit Suisse and UBS said they would not comment on specific client relationships, but stressed that they abided by international legal obligations.

“Credit Suisse is committed to operating its business in strict compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations within the markets in which it operates,” the bank said.

Mr Browder and Hermitage are expected to mount a legal challenge to the Swiss federal prosecutor’s decision next month.

The current federal prosecutor, Michael Lauber, has only a few weeks more in office. He tendered his resignation in the summer amid an impeachment process over his conduct begun by Swiss lawmakers.

Controversy has swirled around his role, particularly his close relationship with Russian law enforcement. A key adviser and personal friend of Mr Lauber was found to have accepted illegal gifts from senior Russian officials earlier this year, including a bear-hunting trip in Siberia at which sensitive ongoing Swiss legal cases were discussed.

Mr Lauber’s office has been at odds with Mr Browder for some time. In May this year, the federal prosecutor told Hermitage it intended to share sensitive legal testimony on the case with Russia, prompting an outcry from European and US politicians.

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