Once again, Bill Browder has foiled Vladimir Putin, and it will probably not be the last time the British businessman and the Russian president square off.
The Department of Homeland Security has restored Browder's ability to enter the United States without a visa after temporarily blocking him when Russia placed his name on an Interpol list seeking his arrest. The Kremlin apparently was retaliating for Browder's long-running international campaign against Russia and Putin over the killing of Browder's Moscow tax attorney, friend and whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, who died from untreated illnesses and beatings while being held in a Russian prison. He was arrested after accusing officials of a $230 million tax fraud.
Last week, Canada passed its own version of a Magnitsky Act targeting corrupt officials and human rights abusers. Putin has branded Magnitsky legislation already in place in three countries as "anti-Russia hysteria."
This marks the fifth time since Browder has started tangling with Putin that Russia has asked Interpol to pick him up for "illegal activity."
Browder said in a phone interview that on Monday evening, he was able to buy a plane ticket and get a boarding pass for a flight from London to the United States without being turned away, as he was last week.
"The boarding pass was as good as being on the plane, as far as I'm concerned," said Browder, who gave his ticket back and got a refund before returning home.
Though he has not been officially notified that his ability to enter the United States has been restored, Browder's successful test came as several members of Congress expressed outrage over his being stopped from flying to Newark last week because of the Interpol listing.
"Putin is seriously rattled about everything I'm doing around the world," Browder said. "It affects his personal interests. He's worried his money will be frozen some day. He sees me as his top enemy in the world, because I found his Achilles' heel."
Browder, a hedge fund manager who had hired Magnitsky to represent his interests in Russia, has become a tireless Kremlin critic in the eight years since Magnitsky was killed. He has lobbied governments around the world to punish those believed responsible for his friend's death.
Three countries have passed Magnitsky legislation, including the United States. The 2012 law bans numerous Russians from traveling to the United States or using the U.S. financial system. In response, Russia convicted Magnitsky posthumously of tax evasion and prohibited U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
On Thursday, a day after Canada passed its version of a Magnitsky Act, Putin appeared at a conference in which he was asked about it and characterized Browder as a criminal. The same day, Browder says, he received an email that his status had changed on his ability to enter the United States under the Global Entry system.
Though born in the United States, Browder immigrated to Britain 28 years ago and relinquished his U.S. citizenship. But he travels frequently to the United States to testify before Congress or speak about Magnitsky. As a British citizen, he has enrolled in the visa waiver program so that he can enter the country for up to 90 days without needing a visa.
After checking on the DHS website for Global Entry and learning his status had been "revoked," he suspected he might also have problems with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to screen law enforcement systems and determine whether travelers are a security risk.
According to a spokesman for the agency, Browder's status was automatically changed to "pending" after his name showed up on the Interpol list. On Oct. 18, a supervisor personally reviewed it and restored him, according to the spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
But Browder said he was denied a boarding pass when he tried to purchase a United ticket for travel to Newark the following day. That's when he checked with acquaintances at Interpol and learned his name had popped up on the list under a provision that lets countries demand a person's arrest, known as a "diffusion." He was added on Oct. 17 by Russia, he said.
Browder said he tried to call DHS to clear things up, but after an hour and a half waiting on hold, he was advised to file a Freedom of Information request.
"It's one big black hole at DHS," he said.
Browder took to Twitter to publicize his plight, accusing the United States of "revoking" his visa. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) called on DHS to review what had happened. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) asked the State Department to look into it.
It is cleared up, for now, but Browder expects it to happen again, saying it is easy for countries such as Russia to manipulate the system.
"It's absurd I've been put on the list by Russia five times and they haven't found a way to stop it from abusing their system," he said.
"It's shocking what it says if the system designed to catch criminals is used by criminals to get around the system. How are we going to fight transnational criminals and terrorists when we see how Russia is working the international system for their own criminal and political purposes?"
Interpol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.