The UK will have its own version of the US Magnitsky Act, with measures allowing the government to freeze the assets of human rights violators from anywhere in the world.
A vote by MPs to approve the powers is a breakthrough for a group campaigning for the memory of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was beaten to death in a Moscow jail after exposing a $230m fraud from the state budget involving a criminal gang and corrupt officials.
The US Congress in 2012 passed the “Magnitsky Act”, allowing visa bans and asset freezes to be imposed on Russians connected with that case or found to have profited from other human rights abuses. Congress extended the scope of the legislation late last year to cover human rights violators in any country.
The UK will become only the third country to adopt similar measures. Estonia passed a Global Magnitsky Act in 2016, while Canada and the EU are considering their own versions.
Security Minister Ben Wallace said in support of the bill: “We need to make the UK a hostile environment for those seeking to move, hide and use the proceeds of crime and corruption. In an increasingly competitive international marketplace, the UK simply cannot afford to be seen as a haven for dirty money.” He added, “They all have expensive properties in London and think they are untouchable.”
Not only cutting off but also exposing the flow of money outside Russia, the result of widespread graft, should be part and parcel of our countermeasures to check Russian assault (physical and otherwise) on democracies.
“The passage of the Magnitsky Amendment to the Criminal Finances Bill has been a major victory for a broad coalition of campaigners pushing to highlight the national security threat, and the threat to the integrity of the UK housing market, posed by kleptocrats liberally laundering their assets,” says Ben Judah, a British author and expert on Russian financial corruption. He cautions, however, that there is more to do. “The amendment gives British courts the powers they need to seize assets if they are highlighted as human rights violators by the Home Office but it doesn’t pierce the cloak of anonymity these kleptocrats usually use to conceal their assets,” he says. “Therefore for the law to actually be effective we need the British Parliament to pass the more radical version of a law currently planned to go under a vote later this year, which would severely curtail the anonymous companies so favored by criminals and kleptocrats.”
While Congress considers further sanctions regarding Russian meddling in our election, its invasion and continued occupation of Ukraine and human rights crimes in Syria, one can imagine President Trump trying to delay and water down such measures, just as the Obama State Department did with regard to the original Magnitsky Act. To the extent that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson can encourage other Western democracies to follow the lead of the United States and the United Kingdom — and expand information-sharing to locate assets of human rights abusers — he can continue to tighten the noose around Russia kleptocrats.
Beyond that, Congress should consider a financial-crimes bill that would provide tools to seize assets of Russian and other foreign plutocrats who abscond with millions upon millions of dollars, thereby contributing to the misery of the Russian people. Vladimir Putin’s friendly oligarchs do not support Putin for ideological reasons. It’s about the money — and the more effective the West can be in depriving them of the fruits of their ill-gotten gains, the better.