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Russia targets anti-Kremlin crusader Browder in new probe

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Moscow (AFP)

Russian prosecutors said Monday they had opened a new criminal probe into British financier William Browder and suggested the anti-Kremlin crusader was to blame for an associate's death.

Browder, who describes himself as Russian President Vladimir Putin's "Enemy Number One", has led an anti-corruption campaign in memory of whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of a $230 million tax fraud.

Browder dismissed the allegations, saying on Twitter they were Kafkaesque "to say the least".

Browder, a US-born British citizen, headed a major investment firm in Moscow in the 1990s and 2000s but fell foul of the authorities and has since been convicted in absentia of tax evasion and deliberate bankruptcy.

A representative of the Russian General Prosecutor's Office, Nikolai Atmonyev, told reporters that a new probe against Browder had been opened on Friday on suspicion that he had established and run a "transnational criminal gang".

Browder faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the new charges, Atmonyev said.

- 'Putin's fever dream' -

Atmonyev also alleged that Browder could be behind the death of four associates including Magnitsky.

"The Russian General Prosecutor's Office has concluded that it was Browder who was interested in Magnitsky's death," Atmonyev said.

Prosecutors said the four had been killed, possibly by poisoning with a military-grade substance containing aluminium.

Alexander Kurennoi, spokesman for the General Prosecutor's Office, told AFP that it was "highly likely" Browder was responsible "to cover up the crimes he committed in Russia".

Browder suggested the accusations were a response to British claims that Russian operatives attempted to kill former intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a military-grade nerve agent in England in March.

"Putin's 'fever dream' response to being caught poisoning the Skripals is accusing me of four murders, including poisoning of Sergei Magnitsky," he said on Twitter.

"I really struck a nerve."

He noted that the allegations came just as Interpol was deciding whether a Russian interior ministry official, Alexander Prokopchuk, should become its new president.

Moscow critics fear that if its candidate is confirmed, Russia could abuse Interpol "Red Notices" to hunt down Kremlin opponents.

Prosecutors said that Browder would be put on an international wanted list "in the near future".

Atmonyev said Russia would seek Browder's extradition within the framework of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, meaning that no country would be able to refuse to hand him over.

Russia's previous efforts to put Browder on Interpol's wanted list have been rejected.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed "a new episode" against Browder, saying Russian police were in touch with foreign counterparts.

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

- 'Deceitful scumbags' -

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny mocked the new allegations against Browder, pointing to previous official findings that Magnitsky had been beaten in prison and died of untreated illnesses.

"First they said that (Magnitsky) died from illness. Then that he banged his head against a wall and tortured himself to death. Now that Browder poisoned him. Deceitful scumbags," Navalny wrote on Twitter.

Browder's campaign for Magnitsky has had strong resonance worldwide.

In 2012, the United States passed the "Sergei Magnitsky Act" which imposed a visa ban and froze the assets of Russian officials implicated in the lawyer's death.

British lawmakers adopted similar measures this year.

The legislation became a symbol of prison abuses in Russia and strained ties with the West.

In December 2017, a Moscow court sentenced Browder in absentia to nine years in a penal colony after convicting him of deliberate bankruptcy and tax evasion. Browder was also sentenced to nine years in prison in 2013 in absentia.

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