STATE DEPARTMENT - A prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin says the United States revoked his authorization to travel to the U.S. after Moscow succeeded in getting him added to Interpol's wanted list.
Bill Browder, who became a British citizen after giving up his U.S. citizenship in 1998 for tax reasons, tells VOA he hopes the action will soon be overturned, but that he cannot leave Britain until the issue is resolved. In a phone interview from London with VOA, the former banker who became a human rights activist, said he is not just barred from traveling to the U.S.
"In fact, it is worse than that. I am banned from traveling anywhere," Browder said. "Any national border that I cross, I will be arrested based on the Russian's illegitimate Interpol notice."
However, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency spokesperson told VOA late Monday that Browder has been cleared for travel to the U.S. again.
"As the agency charged with preventing the entry of terrorists and other criminal actors from entering the United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection regularly screens law enforcement systems in order to determine if any travelers present a security or law enforcement risk. This vetting is done on a recurrent basis and decisions on travel are made on the latest information available," according to the CPB statement. "William Browder's ESTA [visa waiver travel authorization] remains valid for travel to the United States. His ESTA was manually approved by CBP on Oct. 18 — clearing him for travel to the United States."
Asked for comment, Browder said the timeline CBP is providing is not accurate, but he hopes that the issue has been resolved.
Earlier in the day, Browder had told VOA he reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for clarity on the issue.
"I spoke to somebody there who refused to give me any information on why this happened and encouraged me to write a Freedom of Information Act request if I really wanted to find out."
Fifth time, says Browder
Browder said this is the fifth time Russia has had him added to Interpol’s list. Each time, he says Interpol has looked at the circumstances, determined they were illegitimate and lifted the notices.
The British activist said he had planned on coming to the U.S. for important meetings related to his ongoing work on Russian human rights violations. Browder would not say if he had planned to meet with prosecutors or lawmakers to discuss Russia’s interference in the 2016 American presidential elections, but he did say Moscow probably considered his planned meetings in the U.S.
"It is a beautiful way of grounding me and making me ineffective and I’m sure they thought that through when they did this," he told VOA.
Browder is the founder of Hermitage Capital Management Foundation and was once the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia. His tax lawyer in Russia, Sergei Magnitsky, was jailed in Russia in 2008 under false charges of tax evasion after working to expose a purported tax fraud scheme by Russian officials.
Magnitsky died in a Russian prison in 2009 after being beaten and denied medical care, earning Moscow widespread condemnation from international human rights organizations. Browder, who was living in London at the time, spearheaded a campaign to get Western governments to punish those high-ranking Russians responsible for Magnitsky's death.
Sanctions on Russians
The United States, Estonia and Canada have imposed sanctions on Russians involved in Magnitsky’s death, infuriating Putin and the Kremlin. For years, the Kremlin denied beating and mishandling Magnitsky, saying he died of natural causes.
The Kremlin now claims Browder is responsible for Magnitsky’s death, saying he colluded with a British security service to talk Russian prison personnel into not helping Magnitsky. Browder rejects these new murder allegations as "absurd" and "farcical."
Putin campaigned hard against the measure Browder pushed, known in the U.S. as the "Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act." It denies visas and blocks access to American banks for Russians accused of having committed human rights abuses at home. After the resolution passed in the U.S. in 2012, Putin retaliated by ending American adoptions of Russian children.
'Richest man in the world?'
On July 27, Browder testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that Putin was the "richest man in the world," a result of "terrible crimes" Putin's government committed without the threat of retribution.
"I believe he is worth $200 billion," Browder said, testifying in the Senate panel’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. "The purpose of the Putin regime has been to commit terrible crimes in order to get that money, and he doesn’t want to lose that money by having it frozen. So he is personally at risk of the Magnitsky Act."
'Remedy this error'
Browder's visa being revoked had triggered criticism from some former diplomats and lawmakers. The ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, called on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to rectify the situation.
"I urge you to immediately reverse the Department of State’s baffling decision to revoke Bill Browder’s visa and explain why the department took this misguided action," Engel said. "This decision harms American credibility on the world stage, and it is unacceptable. I expect that you will remedy this error at once and explain to me and other lawmakers why this happened in the first place."
Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin also called on U.S. officials to review the decision on Browser's travel authorization.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul also weighed in Monday, tweeting: