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Bulgarian banker undermines the spirit of the Magnitsky Act

The Global Magnitsky Act is one of the shining lights of the American legal system. The law, which was recently updated, allows the United States government to impose restrictions on bad actors in oppressive regimes, including Russia, to punish individuals who violate human rights and profit from corruption.

September 19, 2017 - Eugen Iladi - Analysis


Currently, one accused law breaker in Bulgaria is attempting to pervert the Global Magnitsky Act and turn it upside down. Tzvetan Vassilev – a Bulgarian businessman who has been indicted for driving a respected bank into default by using it to run a pyramid scheme – is trying to protect himself from prosecution by invoking the law. Even worse, he is comparing himself to the law’s heroic namesake, Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky was a lawyer and auditor who discovered a multi-million-dollar fraud among Russian tax officials. He was arrested and held without trial. In 2009, seven days before Russian law required that he be released, he was beaten to death, becoming a worldwide symbol of repression under Vladimir Putin.

The US Congress honored Magnitsky in 2012 by approving the Magnitsky Act, which was designed to punish those responsible for Magnitsky’s death by prohibiting them from entering the US and also from using the American banking system. Others who violate human rights could also be punished. Last year, the law was updated to expand the president’s power to sanction individuals and was renamed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

To date, 44 human rights abusers have been put on the Magnitsky list and are prevented from entering the U.S. and using its banking system.

Now, Vassilev is attempting to twist the law to his advantage. He is applying to be the first case to be considered under the Global Magnitsky Act. His representative is asking the US government to place economic sanctions on two fellow Bulgarians that he says are falsely accusing him of crimes.

Both of these Bulgarians say vehemently that Vassilev is defaming them and they have a strong case. One, Sotir Tsatsarov, is the country’s chief prosecutor – in other words Vassilev’s main, official accuser. The second, Delyan Peevski, is a member of the Bulgarian parliament and a media owner whose outlets have published harsh questions about Vassilev and the bank he managed.

In effect, Vassilev is disseminating fake news and attempting to foist it on American officials.

Vassilev has been indicted twice this year on multiple counts of money laundering and embezzlement related to the failure of Bulgaria’s fourth-largest bank, Corporate Commercial Bank. Bulgarian investigators say Vassilev leveraged his majority stake to obtain a leadership position in the bank and then led it into failure by extending millions of dollars in uncollateralised credit. According to the indictments, he diverted loans to himself through shell companies and used the money to buy assets, including telecommunications, energy and hospitality companies.

These are not empty accusations. Bulgarian officials hired respected auditors, including Deloitte and Ernst & Young, to examine the bank’s books. They found that 87 per cent of the bank’s loans were given to applicants with insufficient or no collateral.

Vassilev used the bank to run a self-enriching pyramid scheme, prosecutors say, to steal more than 1.5 billion dollars. As a result, thousands of ordinary Bulgarian depositors were hurt.

To evade responsibility, Vassilev has chosen to declare himself the victim. He falsely claims that he is the target of a plot engineered by Peevski, the Bulgarian media owner, and Tsatsarov, the chief prosecutor.

Vassilev is asserting that Peevski and Tsatsarov should be subject to sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. If this happens it would undermine the law’s intent and desecrate the memory of Magnitsky, who lost his life battling corruption. Meanwhile, Vassilev has he fled to Serbia, which does not have an extradition treaty with Bulgaria.

Vassilev’s claims would be laughable if they did not have potentially serious consequences for diligent public servants like Tsatsarov and Peevski. After reviewing the facts of Vassilev’s application as they should, officials at the US State and Treasury Departments should come to the same conclusion as officials in Bulgaria: Vassilev’s accusations are meritless and should be discarded. The memory of Sergei Magnitsky deserves nothing less.

Eugen Iladi is a freelance reporter covering topics related to politics, business, conflict and corruption with a focus on emerging markets.


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