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Anti-Kremlin campaigner calls for 'French Magnitsky act'

Bill Browder, a former top investor in Russia, is spearheading a worldwide campaign to sanction Russian officials and oligarchs
Bill Browder, a former top investor in Russia, is spearheading a worldwide campaign to sanction Russian officials and oligarchs Bill Browder, a former top investor in Russia, is spearheading a worldwide campaign to sanction Russian officials and oligarchs AFP
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Paris (AFP)

A British financier who has infuriated the Kremlin by spearheading legislation worldwide to sanction Russian officials and oligarchs said Wednesday he is hopeful of a similar law being agreed in France.

William (Bill) Browder, a former top investor in Russia, began a campaign to penalise Russians accused of rights violations after his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in a Russian jail in 2009.

After "Magnitsky Acts" were agreed by legislatures in Britain, Canada, the United States and the three Baltic states, Browder said France was now a priority for his campaign.

Were France to pass legislation, he said it would hit officials and oligarchs who own villas on the Cote d'Azur, sip coffee in St Tropez or enjoy residences in Paris.

"France is one of the most important countries in the world as far as a Magnitsky Act is concerned," Browder told AFP in an interview in Paris.

"France is one of the most coveted countries for dictators and kleptocrats to keep second homes and go on vacation. If you have sanctions against these people in some countries but not France you are really missing something."

"It would be devastating. Every single oligarch has some presence here," he said.

- 'Momentum in France' -

The campaigner had on Tuesday embarked on the first formal stage of his legislative campaign in France, addressing the foreign affairs committee of the French parliament

Browder said he had not felt much interest in France until the election of President Emmanuel Macron in May 2017.

"The entire chemistry and feeling has changed," said Browder, whose appearance was backed by the committee's vice president and Macron ruling party member Mireille Clapot.

"It was truly an interesting and engaged dialogue," Browder said. "It was one of the most successful parliamentary hearings we had anywhere and it feels like France is now in play."

Browder will now head to Germany to press for a Magnitsky Act there, although unlike in France he has no formal hearing with the foreign affairs committee scheduled.

- 'Putin the best advocate' -

He said it just takes "one nasty action" by Putin to intensify the momentum, as happened in Britain where an act was passed following the botched assassination bid against former spy Sergei Skripal last year which was blamed on the Kremlin.

"Vladimir Putin is the best advocate for this cause. He always does something that causes such outrage," said Browder.

The US-born chief executive of hedge fund Hermitage Capital is now a public enemy number one for the Kremlin and the target of multiple Russian arrest warrants.

Russian prosecutors in December 2018 said they had opened a new criminal probe against him alleging he was a crime boss who could have poisoned several associates.

Browder, who has rubbished the charges, alleges that it is Putin who sits at the top of a system that lives and breathes on money and corruption.

"In order for Putin to stay in power, he has to enrich a group of around 1,000 people who run the security organisations," he said.

Magnitsky went public with details of the $230 million fraud by Russian state officials before being charged with tax evasion and later dying in pre-trial detention after a year in jail.

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