Russian TV calls Magnitsky boss 'spy tainted by death'

A Kremlin-run channel has aired a programme attacking the US-born former employer of dead lawyer Sergei Magnitsky for allegedly working for the British secret service and standing to gain from the "mysterious" deaths of his employees.

NTV television's assault on Hermitage Capital co-founder Bill Browder -- whose firm was once the biggest foreign investor in Russia -- came a day after police accused him of stealing $70 million in Gazprom stock.

Browder told AFP the programme showed "such a bunch of slanderous nonsense it doesn't even dignify a response."

The late Magnitsky will be standing in Russia's first posthumous trial on Monday -- a case that has inflamed tensions between Russia and the United States.

Magnitsky died in pre-trial detention in 2009 after revealing what he alleged was a $230-million state tax fraud scheme and being put under investigation by the same officials whom he had accused.

The "Browder List" broadcast late Wednesday on NTV first alleges that Browder revoked his US citizenship in 1989 to become a British national in oder to spy for London.

"An American getting British citizenship makes no practical sense," said the narrator.

"The only way to explain this is by (Browder's) need to join the state service of Britain. You can only guess what sort of state service this was."

It then alleges that a $4.5-billion IMF loan Russia received in the 1990s that appeared to be misspent ended up being transferred to a bank account owned by Browder's late business partner Edmond Safra.

Safra -- a prominent Brazilian banker of Lebanese origin -- died in 1999 in a fire in Monaco that was determined to be arson.

His male nurse was arrested under suspicion of burning the house down and convicted in Monaco 2002.

"When does Safra die? He dies when he begins to give evidence to the FBI about this (IMF money) story," Kremlin-linked political strategist Sergei Kurgunyan told the programme.

"And this one did not die," he added while pointing to a picture of Browder. "And then he begins feverishly striking huge deals."

The programme goes on to allege that this was just the first of many "mysterious deaths of people who in one way or another dealt with Browder."

It also alleges a complex tax evasion scheme it says was arranged for Hermitage Capital by the Firestone Duncan consultancy with Magnitsky's involvement.

It does not say a word about the huge tax fraud scheme that Magnitsky alleged to have found state officials to be running in the past decade.

"Of course you cannot call (Magnitsky) any kind of fighter for the truth," an analyst named Alexander Apetyan told the show.

"Magnitsky never investigated a thing -- nothing at all... because in reality, the money was stolen from the budget by people that Magnitsky knew perfectly well," he said.

Browder told AFP that NTV tried to interview him for the programme by posing as journalists for the Qatari-based Al Jazeera network.

No one has been convicted in Russia for Magnitsky's death and the United States has slapped travel bans on officials implicated in his prosecution. Russia retaliated to that by outlawing US adoptions of Russian children.

Browder himself is standing as a co-defendant in Magnitsky's tax evasion trial. He has denied illegally obtaining Gazprom stock for Hermitage Capital.

He added that the programme was aired as part of a Kremlin campaign aimed at discredit his efforts to get European countries to adopt the called Magnitsky Act that Russians implicated in rights violations from entering the United States.

"This shows the level of desperation the Russian government now feels as a result of the Magnitsky Act," Browder said by telephone.

"They are ready to ban adoptions, have posthumous trials and create these fantasy TV shows to try to fight against the inevitable sanctions that will occur across the world," he argued.