The Tánaiste and finance minister met with Lord Barker over the Limerick refinery that is linked to the sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska
Bill Browder, the financier and political activist who is a long-time critic of the Kremlin, has criticised Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe for meeting with a UK Conservative life peer to discuss his plan to take over the Aughinish Alumina refinery in Limerick.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, Mr Browder said the meeting at government buildings on March 21 between the Irish ministers and Greg Barker, a former British government minister and chairman of the aluminium firm EN+ controlled by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, “clearly stinks” for everyone involved.
Lord Barker, who resigned from EN+ two weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is spearheading a potential deal by a group of non-Russian investors to buy the group’s European operations from Rusal, a subsidiary which owns the Aughinish facility in Shannon.
In 2018, Lord Barker directed a successful plan to quash US government sanctions levelled against the company and Deripaska over the billionaire’s alleged close ties to President Vladimir Putin.
The Government has already turned down an appeal by Larysa Gerasko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Ireland, to shut down the Aughinish refinery since the war broke out. The plant on the Shannon estuary, which employs 482 workers, is Europe’s biggest alumina refinery, producing about one third of the EU’s needs.
Mr Browder also said he was disappointed by what he called the hypocrisy of senior Irish politicians for meeting with Lord Barker while advocating for humanitarian and military aid for Ukraine.
He added: “I have been encountering this hypocrisy for the past decade where governments would talk about human rights, justice, and national security out of one side of their mouths without any questions asked out of the other side of the mouth. It was only after eight years since the invasion of Ukraine that most people have realised it was a catastrophic mistake.”
Mr Browder said the meeting, which was first reported by The Sunday Times on May 30, “clearly stinks for him [Varadkar] and stinks even worse for Lord Barker”.
A former fund manager in Moscow who once managed $4.5bn (€4.3bn), Mr Browder has spent the past decade focusing on human rights activism since the death of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009.
His global campaign to expose corruption and punish Russian officials, whom he blames for the death of Mr Magnitsky, has led to legislation being introduced around the world freezing assets and denying visas to the same officials.
Mr Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 after raising the alarm over a $230m tax fraud committed by Russian government officials. In a testimony to the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport committee, Mr Browder said Mr Magnitsky had been tortured and killed “by eight riot guards with rubber batons”.
A bid to introduce an Irish Magnitsky Bill was scuppered in 2013 after the then-Russian ambassador warned that passage would threaten negotiations on an agreement to let Irish citizens adopt Russian orphans.
During his testimony to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr Browder said two FSB agents were observed in the gallery.
Mr Browder said he is confident that the current bill, which has the backing of Labour TD Brendan Howlin, will have cross-party backing.
The updated Irish Magnitsky Act is essentially an amendment and a refinement of the Criminal Assets Bureau, which allows the government to freeze the assets of people involved in organised crime and narcotics overseas
“It means you can take the same tool, which already exists in Ireland, and apply it to human rights abusers and we are calling it the Magnitsky Amendment,” said Mr Browder.
On March 8, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil he was in favour of the principle of the bill although he is not convinced “it is perfect or will do what it says on the tin”.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee is reportedly of the view that EU-wide approaches targeting the assets of those guilty of gross human rights abuses outside the state, are preferable to individual country measures.
However, Mr Browder said the EU-approach is “totally dysfunctional” as it requires unanimity for every decision and allows the process to be hijacked by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is known for his close ties to Mr Putin.
“Ireland has to protect its own sovereignty in situations like that and shouldn’t be handicapped by the dysfunction,” he said.
Despite the reservations in some political quarters, Mr Browder is confident the legislation will be finally passed.
“The invasion of Ukraine is getting everything over the line, including the Irish Magnitsky Act,” he said. “If we had done all this stuff 10 years ago, there might not have been an invasion of Ukraine. It’s better late than never and it has multiple purposes for Putin and other kleptocrats and dictators around the world.