Russian authorities have leveled new accusations at British-based financier Bill Browder, saying the vocal Kremlin critic is now suspected of involvement in the death of his associate Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail a decade ago.
In November 19 announcements that were swiftly dismissed by Browder as baseless and "Kafkaesque," state prosecutors also told a news conference that they had charged Browder in absentia with forming a "transnational criminal group."
The accusations are the latest chapter in an ongoing battle between the Kremlin and Browder, a U.S.-born Briton who was once the biggest foreign investor in Russia but fell afoul of the government and is now a foe of President Vladimir Putin.
In a tweet, Browder said that "Putin's 'fever dream' response to being caught poisoning the Skripals is accusing me of four murders, including poisoning of Sergei Magnitsky."
The remark was a reference to the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March, which Britain accuses Russia of carrying out with a nerve agent developed in the late Soviet era.
The Russian claims come ahead of an Interpol election that could put a Russian Interior Ministry veteran at the head of the international policing group despite allegations that Moscow has used the agency to pursue political enemies, including Browder.
Browder was the employer of Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested in 2008 after exposing a scheme in which mid-ranking Interior Ministry, tax service, and other officials allegedly defrauded the Russian state of $230 million.
The officials who Magnitsky accused turned the tables, claiming he perpetrated the fraud himself, and he died in jail in November 2009 after what associates and activists said was a beating, the denial of medical care, and treatment that amounted to torture.
Since Magnitsky's death, Browder has campaigned for laws in countries worldwide that are designed to punish those responsible for human rights abuses -- including the 2012 U.S. Magnitsky Act, which riled the Kremlin.
Magnitsky was prosecuted and convicted posthumously, a development that caused outrage abroad, and a Moscow court sentenced Browder in absentia to nine years in prison in December 2017 after convicting him of large-scale tax evasion.
At the news conference in Moscow, Nikolai Atmonyev, an assistant to Russia's prosecutor-general, said the authorities were investigating Browder's possible involvement in what he called "the fatal poisoning with a chemical" of Magnitsky and three other people.
Another representative of the Prosecutor-General's Office, Mikhail Aleksandrov, claimed that Magnitsky and three other late associates of Browder had been poisoned with a chemical substance that he suggested was of Western origin.
"Russia never conducted targeted studies" of the substances in question, Aleksandrov said, adding that "toxicological studies of aluminum compounds have been conducted exclusively by research centers in the United States, France, and Italy."
The officials presented no evidence to back the alleged poison suspicion. But Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Aleksandr Kurennoi claimed that Oleg Lurye, a journalist who was Magnitsky's cellmate, has said Browder might have poisoned Magnitsky.
Atmonyev also said Browder was also charged with organizing a transnational criminal group and will be added to an international wanted list, while any property he has in Russia will be impounded.
Browder said on Twitter that the Russian accusation came one day before "the Dutch government will be inviting all EU member states to The Hague to propose an EU wide Magnitsky Act."
"In advance of that, the Russian government today has accused me of murdering Sergei Magnitsky," he tweeted. "Kafkaeske to say the least."
Browder also suggested that the Russian accusations were connected to an election expected on November 21 in which a Russian, Aleksandr Prokopchuk, could be chosen as president of the French-based Interpol.
"On the eve of Interpol deciding whether a Russian official should be president of Interpol, the Russian prosecutor's office holds a huge press conference about me and how they will chase me down anywhere in the world," he tweeted. "I really struck a nerve with the Magnitsky Act."
Browder, who was barred from entering Russia in 2005, has been detained several times in various countries -- most recently in Spain in May of this year -- while Interpol sought to verify arrest warrants issued by Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov sought to challenge Browder's criticism, telling journalists in Moscow that the "so-called Browder case began, as far as I know, long before the episode with the Skripals" -- but said a "new episode was added" to the case.
Browder's lawyer, Aleksandr Antipov, cried foul, saying that the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office and Investigative Committee officially informed him that Browder was not under investigation as a suspect in any case.
Antipov called the prosecutors' new accusations "illegal" and said he will fight them.
"Today's information was unexpected and unclear because by the law, first the person who is going to be charged and his/her lawyers must be informed about the charges before they are made public," Antipov said.
Peskov also said that the Kremlin "naturally" supported Prokupchuk, who is now an Interpol vice president, and wanted him "to be victorious in this election."