WASHINGTON -- The hoots and jeers began the minute the movie ended and the lights went up on the seventh floor of the Newseum, a Washington museum dedicated to the free press. The film was a semifictionalized look at the story of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who helped to uncover a massive tax fraud and later died in a Moscow jail.
In the front of the room, a handful of Russian opposition activists shouted, “Shame!” at the director. In the back, out of the spotlight, was the event’s organizer -- a fast-talking, nattily dressed man in a dark blue, double-breasted suit standing at a small table, sipping bottled water and quietly watching the commotion.
The June 13 showing was the film's premiere. Other screenings had been canceled in Europe following protests by critics who say it is a crude attempt to smear Magnitsky's name and that of the Western financier who employed him, William Browder.
That it was shown at all was a small coup for Rinat Akhmetshin, the man at the back of the room who for nearly 20 years has worked the shadowy corners of the Washington lobbying scene on behalf of businessmen and politicians from around the former Soviet Union.
"I call him skilled because -- though I am certain that they exist -- I know of no Russian gun-for-hire who managed to run his campaigns so successfully, running circles around purportedly much more seasoned Washington hands,” says Steve LeVine, a veteran Washington reporter who explored some of Akhmetshin’s past work in his 2007 book The Oil And The Glory.
Barely registering in U.S. lobbying records, the 48-year-old Akhmetshin has been tied to efforts to bolster opponents of Kazakhstan's ruling regime, discredit a fugitive former member of Russia's parliament, and undermine a Russian-owned mining firm involved in a billion-dollar lawsuit with company information allegedly stolen by hackers.
But his most recent campaign has a qualitatively new dimension, thrusting him to the center of an issue that helped send U.S.-Russia relations to lows unseen since the Cold War: Magnitsky’s death in 2009, the alleged persecution by Russian officials he blew the whistle on, and the eponymous U.S. law that punished alleged Russian rights abusers and infuriated the Kremlin.
“You undermine Browder, you undermine Magnitsky. You undermine Magnitsky, you undermine the sanctions,” says one U.S. government official who has followed the Magnitsky saga closely but wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on it. “Then you undermine the entire sanctions regime.”
The Paper Trail
A bespectacled 48-year-old who holds dual Russian-American citizenship and is known to ride around downtown Washington on a retro orange bicycle, Akhmetshin has managed to fly largely under the radar in past campaigns. There are only a handful of records in the congressional lobbying database bearing his imprint.
But a small paper trail in U.S. court records offers an illustrative sampling of his work.
In 1998, he founded the Washington office of an organization called the International Eurasian Institute for Economic and Political Research to “help expand democracy and the rule of law in Eurasia.”
His earliest clients included members of Kazakhstan’s opposition, who were angling against the longtime rule of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his ruling elite. Years later, he ended up in a public-relations effort to undermine a former Nazarbaev son-in-law before he fell out with the regime and fled the country.
In 2011, Akhmetshin was accused of helping to organize a smear campaign against former Russian Duma deputy Ashot Egiazaryan, who had sought political asylum in the United States in the face of criminal charges in Russia related to a business dispute.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court in Manhattan charged that the campaign sought to persuade U.S. officials to revoke Egiazaryan's asylum status and force him to return to Russia, where he was involved in a heated dispute with a billionaire businessman over a Moscow hotel project.
Akhmetshin was not the target of the defamation lawsuit, but in court filings, lawyers allege he was enlisted, along with another Washington public-relations company and private investigators, to help publish articles in a Jewish newspaper accusing the deputy of anti-Semitism.
He also fought to keep his e-mails and computer files from being released to opposing lawyers.
“Some of my clients are national governments or high-ranking officials in those governments,” Akhmetshin said in an affidavit in August 2012. “My government clients have highly sensitive discussions in my e-mails concerning the location or relocation of American military bases in areas within the former Soviet Union.”
More recently, Akhmetshin was caught up in a particularly nasty $1 billion legal fight concerning a potash-mining operation in central Russia. While a Dutch court was the main venue, the dispute spilled into U.S. courts when lawyers for one of the companies accused their counterparts of organizing a scheme to hack their computers and other communications.
The man who masterminded the scheme was Akhmetshin, according to a suit filed in November in New York state court that also accused him of being a former Soviet military intelligence officer who "developed a special expertise in running negative public-relations campaigns."
In a related filing in federal district court in Washington, where lawyers sought to force him to turn over records and e-mails, Akhmetshin confirmed he was helping in an advisory capacity but denied the hacking allegations.
He also revealed his compensation rates. He said he was paid $45,000 up front; in a later declaration, he stated his normal billing rate was $450 an hour.
In an e-mail response to RFE/RL, Akhmetshin denied that he ever worked for Soviet military intelligence, something he would have had to declare when he applied for U.S. citizenship.
“I am an American citizen since 2009 who pays taxes, earned his citizenship after living here since 1994, and swore an oath of loyalty to the United States of America,” he wrote.
Russian Children, American Adoptions
Congressional lobbying records list other clients for Akhmetshin -- for example, the Azeri Democracy Initiative Foundation, registered in 2006 and 2007.
The newest client, called the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation, was incorporated in Delaware in February and registered in lobbying records on April 3. But the initial entry was signed by Akhmetshin only two months later, on June 11, something that experts in lobbying laws and disclosures describe as unusual.
Its address is а shared “co-working” space on the fifth floor of a downtown Washington office building, just a few floors down from Baker Hostetler, a major U.S. law firm that represented the defendant in the Egiazaryan lawsuit.
Baker Hostetler is also the lead firm defending an offshore company called Prevezon that U.S. prosecutors have alleged received some of the $230 million in errant funds that Magnitsky uncovered. Prosecutors are trying to seize millions of dollars in assets in the United States and elsewhere, a case that is currently on appeal on a technical question.
Records list Akhmetshin as the lead lobbyist for the foundation, along with another man named Robert Arakelian, who could not be located for comment.
The disclosure form indicates no sources of foreign funding for the foundation. Nor does it indicate the issues the foundation intends to lobby on.
In fact, the only indication of its purpose comes from a related, largely unfinished website that states its main goal is to “to help restart American adoption of Russian children.” That is a reference to the Russian adoption ban the Kremlin pushed immediately following the adoption of the Magnitsky Act in 2012.
Akhmetshin has paid at least one visit to Congress in connection with new human rights legislation that builds on the earlier Magnitsky Act. Along with Ron Dellums, a former U.S. congressman from California and longtime Washington lobbyist, Akhmetshin visited House member offices on May 17 to meet with Dana Rohrabacher, another California congressman viewed as one of the most sympathetic U.S. officials to Russian causes.
According to The Daily Beast, the two told congressional officials said they were lobbying on behalf of Prevezon. But Dellums told RFE/RL that his involvement focused on resuming Russian adoptions by U.S. parents.
“I don’t know anything about the other stuff -- Prevezon or anything else,” Dellums said.
Moscow, meanwhile, has made no secret of its desire to undermine the Magnitsky Act and has waged open war against Browder as part of that effort. Browder had been barred entry in Russia even before Magnitsky’s death, and in 2013 he was convicted in absentia by a Russian court for tax evasion. Magnitsky was posthumously convicted on similar charges. A Council of Europe investigation concluded the conditions leading up to his death amounted to torture.
State-run Russian TV has aired investigations about Browder and the country’s top prosecutor has linked Browder to an investigative documentary exploring the shady business practices of the prosecutor’s sons.
But the most potent weapon to date may be the film that premiered at the Newseum, by Russian-born filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov, whose previous films were critical of the Kremlin.
In the film, called The Magnitsky Act: Behind The Scenes, Nekrasov uses actors to reenact Magnitsky's arrest and death in a notorious prison. He then professes to find discrepancies in the narrative, ultimately suggesting that in fact it was Browder who masterminded the original tax fraud and that Browder lied about the circumstances surrounding Magnitsky's death.
Browder, who is American-born but now lives in Britain, has aggressively fought to keep the film from being shown anywhere; a Norwegian film festival pulled the film after legal threats from Browder. A screening in April at the European Parliament was canceled after protests from Magnitsky relatives and a German lawmaker.
Browder, who had appealed to the Newseum not to show the film, charged that the screening was a part of an “intense lobbying campaign” to remove Magnitsky’s name from the new legislation before Congress.
“The Putin regime has embarked on a very ambitious and well-resourced international campaign to discredit me and Sergei Magnitsky in order to try to repeal the Magnitsky Act,” Browder told RFE/RL. “They work through their embassies, law-enforcement agencies, as well as through private individuals with strong government connections.”
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington called Browder’s allegations “precarious and unfounded.”
The June 13 event featured an open-bar reception beforehand and, in a notable choice for such a controversial event, traditional movie snacks -- popcorn, chocolate-covered caramels, and bottled water.
Invitees to the screening received notice via e-mail that included a disclaimer suggestive of a lobbying effort: “This event complies with congressional gift rules so that Members and staff of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives may attend.” A handful of congressional staffers did attend, along with at least one State Department official.
Who exactly is funding the film’s production, promotion, or the ongoing lobbying effort isn't entirely clear. Nekrasov has said the film is financed through grants from arts and film councils in Norway, where he’s partnered with a production company.
Nekrasov told RFE/RL he had originally planned to pay for the June 13 screening -- which the Newseum said cost at least $12,500 -- himself, but “the bill did not materialize and already in D.C. I was told it'd been taken care of.”
Akhmetshin, meanwhile, told RFE/RL in an e-mail on June 29 that he didn’t pay for the event but rather that Potomac Square Group, a Washington public-relations company that in the past had circulated news articles critical of Browder to reporters, did.
“Potomac Square Group was working on my instructions to pay for the event, and I understand that my client Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation will reimburse PSG for the expense,” Akhmetshin said.
Chris Cooper, one of Potomac Square Group’s principals, confirmed his company had been compensated by the foundation.
Akhmetshin said the foundation had no connection to Nekrasov, has given Nekrasov no money, and that “no funding or direction for the foundation comes from the Russian government at any level or its officials.” That would trigger reporting requirements under federal lobbying laws.
He also said the foundation’s stated goal -- to resume Russian adoptions by American parents -- “can be best obtained by Congress revisiting the Magnitsky Act and, in particular, its name.”
That's an issue not reflected anywhere in the lobbying disclosure records. In the meantime, revisiting, or even watering down, the Magnitsky Act would directly benefit another client of Akhmetshin’s who is also not listed on these or other lobbying forms: Prevezon.
Prevezon and the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation overlap in another way. In an e-mail sent in April to a Warsaw-based NGO that was hosting a speech by Browder, Russian Natalia Veselnitskaya identified herself as a lawyer working on behalf of the foundation and sought permission to attend, according to officials with the NGO, called the Open Dialog Foundation. Veselnitskaya is also a lawyer for Prevezon.
Akhmetshin did not respond to follow-up e-mail queries on whether Prevezon was the funding source for the foundation.
The day after the screening, Nekrasov and his film crew watched in person as a House committee voted to pass the updated Magnitsky legislation. And they met with Rohrabacher.
Movies And Motorcycles
At the end of the screening of the nearly two-hour film, organizers planned a discussion moderated by Seymour Hersh, the renowned U.S. investigative journalist known for blockbuster scoops. The taunts from opposition activists eventually gave way to a brief question-and-answer session that mainly featured audience members criticizing Nekrasov.
Before the screening, Hersh explained to RFE/RL that he had seen the film a few months prior at Akhmetshin’s behest and was intrigued enough by it that he agreed to host the discussion free of charge.
Hersh said he knew Akhmetshin through mutual acquaintances. He said he had allowed Akhmetshin to park “a couple” of antique motorcycles in the driveway of his Washington-area home -- motorcycles he said Akhmetshin had bought thinking they dated from World War II but in fact were of German manufacture and had been painted over to look like Soviet motorcycles. Akhmetshin confirmed he had a motorcycle parked at Hersh’s house.
At the conclusion of the June 13 event, as the discussion turned loud and rowdy, Hersh tried to get in a final word.
“This is the new truth,” he said.