By Jason Bush
MOSCOW - Interpol has refused to include UK-based fund manager William Browder on its international search list after deciding that Russia's tax evasion case against him is "of a predominantly political nature".
The decision is the latest twist in a long-running battle between the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Browder, whose investment company Hermitage Capital was once the largest investor in Russia's equity market.
Browder has spearheaded an international campaign to expose corruption and human rights violations in Russia following the death in 2009 of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working for Hermitage who was investigating a $230 million tax fraud.
Magnitsky was arrested shortly after alleging that Russian officials were involved in the fraud, and later died in prison while awaiting trial, causing an international uproar.
An Interpol committee on Friday "concluded that the case was of a predominantly political nature" and deleted all information about Browder from its files, it said in a statement posted on its website.
Inclusion in the Lyon, France-based Interpol's database would have obliged its member countries to inform Russia about Browder's whereabouts, enabling Russia to issue an international arrest warrant to the country concerned.
The 190-nation police organization said it had no further comment to make on the case.
"For Interpol to judge this case as being illegitimate and political is highly significant, and just goes to show how far the Putin regime has stepped over the line in the Magnitsky case, and a lot of other cases as well," Browder told Reuters on Saturday.
The U.S. government in April issued a list of Russian officials subject to visa bans and asset freezes in the United States because of alleged involvement in human rights violations under the Magnitsky Act, prompting Moscow to respond with its own list of banned Americans.
Days later, a Moscow court ordered Browder's arrest and placed him on Russia's international wanted list.
Russian prosecutors have accused both Browder and Magnitsky of conspiring to underpay taxes by $16 million by using tax breaks for disabled employees. Their supporters have said the charges are trumped up.
A posthumous trial of Magnitsky started in March.
Alexei Pushkov, the head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia's parliamentary lower house, told Interfax news agency on Saturday that Browder had "mobilized significant political resources" to have Russia's request rejected.
"I think some influential quarters have put pressure on Interpol," Pushkov said.
Browder is presently lobbying European governments to follow the United States in imposing sanctions against Russian officials.
"The objective of the Russian government was to paralyze my European Magnitsky sanctions campaign by making it impossible to travel without fear of being arrested," he said.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)