Financier and rights campaigner criticises UK’s record of targeting corrupt Russian cash
Britain must seize oligarchs’ cash, says Putin’s ‘number one enemy’
Britain needs to confiscate the London assets of the closest allies of Vladimir Putin to show its determination to confront Russia over the poisoning of a former spy, according to one of the president’s foremost critics.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May should order the seizure of London property reputedly owned by Putin ally and Deputy Prime Ninister Igor Shuvalov within seven days to back up her tough rhetoric against the Kremlin, said Bill Browder, the financier and human rights campaigner.
“I think the UK should seize the assets of oligarchs for providing material support to the Putin regime,” Mr Browder told The National.
Ms May ordered the expulsion of 23 diplomats in response to a nerve agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.
She has pledged further measures to confront the threat, including sanctions on Russians responsible for human rights abuses and to detain suspects involved in “hostile state activity” at the borders. She said that senior officials would consider Russia’s response early this week.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, said on Sunday, that the UK would pursue Russians with corrupt wealth held in the UK. His comments followed reports that the government was set to follow up the expulsions with targeted financial measures.
Mr Browder said the measures sounded good in theory, “but this country has a terrible record of doing any Russian money laundering prosecutions – or Russian murder prosecutions”.
His demand for action follow similar proposals by the wife of the murdered former dissident Alexander Litvinenko and Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. They have proposed targeting the wealth of Putin allies living in the UK who are said to own property worth £1.1 billion (Dh5.63bn).
Mr Navalny has said that the finances of business tycoons Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, and Alisher Usmanov, a stakeholder in Arsenal, should come under scrutiny.
Neither has been accused of wrongdoing but they made their money during the chaotic years following the break-up of the Soviet Union when state assets were transferred to private ownership.
Mr Navalny, who was barred from standing against Mr Putin in Sunday's election, also called on the UK to target the children of the president's allies.
"I'm not saying we should stop all Russian children from studying in London, but certainly those of corrupt officials and oligarchs," he told The Sunday Times.
Anti-corruption campaigner Transparency International has previously called on British police to consider targeting the reported £11.4m London property portfolio of Mr Shuvalov, using new powers introduced in January.
The unexplained wealth orders makes it easier for authorities to seize assets if the owner cannot explain how they got them through legal means.
"Where people have obtained wealth by corruption and where we can see a link with the Kremlin, with Vladimir Putin, it may be possible to have unexplained wealth orders and other sanctions on those individuals," Mr Johnson told the BBC on Sunday.
The demand was taken up by UK opposition politicians last week following the attack on the Skripals, who remain critically ill in hospital two weeks after the attack.
Experts say London is a money laundering target owing to its place as a prominent financial centre serviced by a network of accountants and lawyers. Successive governments have been accused of turning a blind eye to corrupt money flowing into the UK.
Mr Browder said that the UK could use anti-terrorist laws to target Mr Shuvalov’s property holdings in the UK. “This was an act of state-sponsored terror, the state that sponsored it is Russia – and Igor Shuvalov is the first deputy prime minister,” he said.
The UK-based financier is the driving force behind attempts to introduce legislation around the world giving law enforcement the powers to seize the domestic assets of human rights abusers.
Countries including the United States, the UK, Canada and Estonia have taken steps to introduce a so-called Magnitsky law inspired by Mr Browder.
The clause is named after Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who worked for Mr Browder, but died from mistreatment in a Moscow jail after identifying a US$230m (Dh844.8m) tax fraud, allegedly involving Russian officials.
Money from the fraud identified by Mr Magnitsky had been traced to a dozen countries and the UK “is the only country where they have refused to open a money laundering investigation”, said Mr Browder, who describes himself as Mr Putin's "number one enemy".
He has previously said there was a "very real chance" that Mr Putin would have him killed, but says he has not taken extra measures since the attack on Mr Skripal. "I have been at a level of high risk for eight years," he said.