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Sergei Magnitsky Case: Visa Restrictions

Volume 561: debated on Tuesday 16 April 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joseph Johnson.)

I am very glad to have the opportunity through an Adjournment debate to raise further the case of Sergei Magnitsky. I am grateful to hon. Members and my hon. Friends for joining me to support a case of continuing concern that involves not only the reputation of Russia but by necessity the response that we as a nation make to this scandal. I am very grateful that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is here to listen and respond.

I should remind the House that Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer whose incarceration and death at the hands of the Russian authorities remains a standing reproach to that regime. He met his fate for raising the alarm about a $230 million fraud committed against the Russian state by its own officials. Mr Magnitsky would have been 41 on 8 April, not a dissimilar age to me. I am a fellow lawyer. I was able to practise without fear or favour. He was not.

Just over a year ago, the House debated the issue and took that opportunity to call for the Government to take action to target those individuals who are implicated in Mr Magnitsky’s death, and to take action in the form of visa and capital restrictions. A number of us called upon the Government to follow in the footsteps of, among others, the United States Senate by passing legislation to enact visa bans.

What has happened since then? In Russia things have gone from bad to worse. In March this year the Russian authorities closed the investigation into Mr Magnitsky’s death, having found that no crime had been committed, despite the findings of two independent domestic commissions. The Russian authorities also announced that they found no evidence of a link between Mr Magnitsky’s arrest and death in custody and his testimonies implicating Government officials in the theft of moneys from the Russian Treasury. Last month the Russian authorities finally launched a posthumous trial against Mr Magnitsky, the first in Russian history. That is not only an offence to natural justice but something truly out of the theatre of the absurd.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that anyone who puts the words “Russia”, “untouchables” and “Sergei” into a search engine will find the full documented history of what can be proven from Russian documents themselves?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. Once again, Google manages to set in stone important words that lead inexorably to a wealth of evidence linking individuals to the unlawful killing of that lawyer.

I was saying that Mr Magnitsky’s trial is truly out of the theatre of the absurd. In fact, it is redolent of the ninth century, when a posthumous trial of a pope was held by his successor—Pope Formosus was already dead when he was tried for his crimes. We have moved on 1,100 years, but Russia seems to be going backwards.

Outside Russia the situation has also moved on. In December last year President Obama signed into law the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which removes United States travel and banking privileges from those identified as involved in the persecution and eventual death of Mr Magnitsky. It also penalises those involved in the fraud uncovered and other human rights abuses. I was pleased to learn that only last Friday the United States Treasury publicly listed the first 18 Russian Government officials to be banned from the United States under that law.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does he agree that although our relations with Russia are complex and delicate, we should never shy away from condemning human rights abuses and removing privileges from those associated with them?

I entirely agree. That sums up the thrust of the approach that I believe we should be taking in this case.

The European Parliament passed another resolution on the Magnitsky case in October last year, recommending that sanctions be enacted on the Russian officials concerned following the lack of progress in Russia and what we now know to be the effective closure of their investigation. In this House, the Foreign Affairs Committee has issued recommendations asking for the list of banned human rights violators to be made public, with specific reference to the Magnitsky case.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend is going to highlight that America has gone much further in both addressing the problem and doing something about it. Will he call for similar action to be taken in this House?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Indeed, I have referred to the Act of both Houses of Congress, so it is clear that the United States has gone down the legislative route and is taking action. That is something I urge the UK Government to consider very seriously. There are two ways of doing that: either passing legislation or using existing powers to deny visas to those who are implicated. I will return to that point shortly.

I am also heartened that many legislators in the French, Swedish and German Parliaments have taken the opportunity over the past year, as we have done, to debate and condemn the scandal emerging from this disturbing case. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), offered some reassurance in the debate last year that the UK Government have expressed many times to the Russian Government their serious concerns about the situation, and I accept that the Government take human rights issues very seriously when considering our relations with Russia.

I also note that the Government said that they felt it best to wait to see how other countries such as the United States reacted and responded before we made any final decisions. Well, action has now been taken: other countries have moved on this. Not only that, but the situation has worsened dramatically, in the absurd, farcical way that I have outlined. We cannot stand on the sidelines any more. It is time that we took action, either in the form of legislation to enact our own visa restrictions against those involved in this grave injustice or through Executive action on a case-by-case basis to deny visa applications when made.

I have several questions for my right hon. Friend to which I know that he will do his best to respond. First, with regard to activities here in the United Kingdom of anyone implicated in this scandal, is an investigation under way, and what steps have been taken and what progress made?

Secondly, what is the status of the investigation into the sudden and unexplained death in Surrey some months ago of Alexander Perepilichnyy, a 44-year-old Russian business man who was linked as a witness to this scandal and who suddenly died in what can only be described as unexplained circumstances?

Thirdly, will the Government consider, on a case-by-case basis, the list of 280 persons that United States Congressman Jim McGovern has submitted to the US State Department detailing their role in this scandal, along with links to documents? Will the Government consider whether to issue those mentioned on that list with a ban forbidding their entry into the United Kingdom, in accordance with the policy that denies entry to known human rights abusers? Fourthly, will the Government support the European Parliament’s call to remove EU visa and banking privileges from the officials involved in the Magnitsky case?

I understand the diplomatic complexities that we face in poking a stick into a hornets’ nest, and I know how important our emerging trade relationship with Russia is. Russia has an important role to play, whether it is to do with the balance of our economy in Europe, with regional security, or with wider global security. None the less, it is simply not tenable for us to turn a blind eye to this situation. I accept that approaching it in a heavy-handed manner would perhaps be inappropriate, but we should make it crystal clear that we are not seeking to intervene in the judicial processes of another country but maintaining our right, as a free country, to criticise constructively and to operate our borders in a way that we see fit.

We should carefully enact visa restrictions so as to penalise those who are clearly linked to this and, indeed, other human rights violations in Russia. I believe that this would have a measurable impact on the lifestyles of many members of the Russian elite who come to London because it is an attractive city in which to stay and in which to shop. I ask this simple question: why should these people be allowed to shop when this injustice remains unaddressed?

The hon. Gentleman is to be warmly congratulated on the subject of this debate. Does he not think, though, that his party would be better working in groups such as the Christian Democrats, its natural home, rather than being allied with groups that often contain many members of Putin’s party and other right-wing parties? Would that not be a way forward for his party so that it could attack these injustices with greater independence and vigour?

The Conservative party is not a sister party of United Russia. I accept that some work is done in the Council of Europe, but it would be unfair to say that we are in any form of grouping with that party. Many Conservative Members would regard such an association as inappropriate and undesirable, and that gives us, as Conservatives and as freedom-lovers, the leeway and the freedom to make the points that my hon. Friends and I seek to make.

Put simply, this is an issue not of party blocs, but of right and wrong. As the leader of the delegation of British MPs to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, I was pleased that we raised the issue of Sergei Magnitsky at a meeting. The leader of the Russian delegation, Mr Nikolay Kovalyov, who is a member of the Duma and a former director of the FSB who was succeeded by Vladimir Putin, listened with interest and respect to what we said. We did not get what we wanted from the Russian delegation, but I think they understand that Russia will be judged in part by how it turns from looking at Sergei Magnitsky—the person who tried to defend Russia—to looking at the persons who have stolen money from the Russian people themselves.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. Like him, I have had the opportunity to address some of these issues directly with Russian politicians who have visited this place and sought a dialogue. It is important that none of us shies away from using every opportunity to raise difficult issues and to challenge in a proper way.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I asked him beforehand if he would agree to it. Has he considered whether the Government and the Minister could address the issue of the assets of those involved who may be in the United Kingdom? That might be a way of making them accountable for their past misdemeanours.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and think that that option should be considered. This issue does not stop at visas; capital restrictions would be a real way of hitting these people where it hurts. To return to my earlier point, it is a matter of reproach that such people are allowed to be economically active in our country while a glaring injustice remains unaddressed.

A huge fraud was committed against the people of Russia by their own officials. I am sure that if they wished to unravel this financial conspiracy they would have our full-throated support and co-operation, but in the absence of such an acknowledgement and action it is only right that Britain sends a clear message to those implicated in this scandal that we are on the side of justice and that those who do not share those values do the eternal name of Russia no service and are not welcome here.

I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing a debate on this important subject. The fact that Members from a range of political parties are present—some of whom have contributed by way of intervention—is a very clear message, not just to people who follow these affairs in the United Kingdom, but, I hope, to those in Russia who pay attention to our proceedings and those who do so on behalf of the Russian Government, that the case of Sergei Magnitsky has not been and will not be forgotten and that the fact that the causes of his death are not being properly investigated and no one is being held to account for his treatment while in prison in Russia cannot but do serious and growing damage to Russia’s reputation, not just in the United Kingdom, but in many other countries in Europe and around the world.

I want to begin by expressing my sympathy on behalf of the Government to the family and friends of Sergei Magnitsky. The tragic circumstances of his death have been outlined eloquently by my hon. Friend today and by many hon. Members in previous parliamentary debates on this subject. Every element of this case is of concern to the Government. The circumstances of Mr Magnitsky’s arrest, detention and eventual death, and the subsequent handling of the case by the Russian authorities are deeply troubling. I fully appreciate the strength of feeling about this case from many Members of the House.

As I have made clear in the past, the Government agree entirely with the sentiment that lay behind the resolution of this House of 7 March 2012, namely that we should defend human rights, condemn those who abuse such rights and tackle a culture of impunity for abusers, wherever the abuse takes place and whoever is responsible. In particular, the clear wish of the House in the resolution was to secure justice for Mr Magnitsky.

During the debate last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), made it clear that the Government would continue to handle the case within the long-established practices of this Government and previous Governments. He undertook to re-examine the situation after the passage of the American Act to ascertain whether there were lessons that we might draw for our own policy.

In recent weeks, the Russian authorities have formally closed the investigation into Mr Magnitsky’s death without any results. That happened despite the fact that it was not some outside body—not some non-governmental organisation or foreign Government—that concluded in 2011 that Mr Magnitsky’s death was probably the result of having been severely beaten and denied medical treatment, but the Russian presidential committee on human rights. It is therefore all the more dismaying that the Russian authorities should have closed the investigation into Mr Magnitsky’s death without results.

Would it be possible and diplomatically appropriate for this debate to be passed, with respect, to His Excellency the Russian ambassador in London, with an invitation to have a meeting, on or off the record, with Members of Parliament who are interested in hearing what he has to say, at which he could also, if he would be prepared to, hear what we have to say?

From my knowledge of the Russian ambassador in London, I am sure that he will be paying close attention to what is being said in the House this evening and that no prompting will be necessary. I am sure that he and his team in the embassy will take the words of my hon. Friend as an invitation for such a conversation to take place.

Perhaps even more worrying than their closing of the investigation is that the Russian authorities have launched a posthumous prosecution of Mr Magnitsky on charges of fraud. I confess that there is something macabre about such a spectacle. My understanding is that such a procedure is within the ambit of the Russian constitution and Russian law, but that it has been used on only exceptional occasions in the past. Trying a dead man and a man seen by many internationally as a whistleblower, to put it mildly, undermines efforts to tackle the perception of widespread corruption within Russia.

I am afraid that we have to conclude from what has happened in recent weeks in Russia that there is no evidence that the passage of the Act in the United States has brought or is likely to bring closer the outcome that all of us wish to see, which is justice for Mr Magnitsky’s family and a thorough, above-board investigation into his death. Altering our own fair and long-established practice of entry requirements for foreign nationals seeking to come to the UK would be unlikely to contribute to achieving justice for Mr Magnitsky either.

The duty of confidentiality means that the details of individual cases are not routinely discussed. As the House knows, the United Kingdom does not prejudge evidence against individuals speculatively.

When visa applications are made, they are considered on their individual merits, taking into account all circumstances and information available to us at that time. As the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and I have regularly made clear in this House and outside, where credible evidence exists, immigration rules empower us to deny entry to those who abuse human rights. It is a declared policy of the present Government that people against whom there is credible evidence of complicity in the abuse of human rights, should not normally expect to be granted admission to the United Kingdom.

We continue to raise the Magnitsky case with the Russian Government, making it clear that in our view a lack of progress in the case is at odds with the efforts they are making to demonstrate the independence of their judiciary, and to portray Russia as an attractive place for foreign investors. Most recently, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the Magnitsky case with Foreign Minister Lavrov during talks in London last month, and I did the same when I met Deputy Foreign Minister Titov in Moscow in February. Recent developments in the Magnitsky case will also be discussed, as a matter of serious concern, by senior officials at the next bilateral human rights dialogue between the United Kingdom and Russia. I remind the House that the United Kingdom is unique among all EU member states in holding annual bilateral meetings to allow formal discussions about human rights. That gives us the opportunity to hold Russia to account on the human rights obligations into which it has entered through its participation in various United Nations conventions, and in the European convention on human rights.

Let me try to respond to the specific questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon. He asked about allegations that members of the so-called “untouchables” have been complicit in criminal offences committed in the United Kingdom. In relation to that, however, and to a couple of his other questions, he will understand that we have independent investigating and prosecuting agencies in this country, and it is not for Ministers to judge the credibility or strength of particular pieces of evidence. On the first question, we have a Serious Organised Crime Agency whose job it is to prevent, detect and contribute to the reduction of serious and organised crime, to gather, store and analyse information about such crime, and to deliver the statutory requirement set out in legislation and international treaties.

For reasons the House will understand, SOCA’s policy is to neither confirm nor deny any details of its activity, files it may have received, or specific requests concerning named subjects. However, that agency is always on the look out for and ready to investigate credible allegations of crimes of a serious international character that may have been committed.

My hon. Friend also asked about the death in Surrey of Mr Perepilichnyy. At present his death is still being investigated by the Surrey police, which they are treating as unexplained, and I therefore do not think I can comment or speculate on a live police investigation. Our understanding is that Surrey police believe they have access to all the assistance they currently require to carry out their investigation into the cause of death. My hon. Friend asked whether the Government would take into consideration the list of 280 people allegedly involved in the Magnitsky case that Congressman Jim McGovern submitted to the state department. As apparent from my earlier remarks, the Home Office would not consider documents provided speculatively in the absence of an actual visa application from an individual. Having said that, when a visa application is made, it is considered on its merits, and all circumstances and information available to us at that time are taken into account. When credible evidence exists that a person has been involved in human rights abuses, they should not expect to be allowed entry to the UK.

My hon. Friend asked about EU visa and banking privileges. We would be willing to looking at any proposals at EU level and to discuss them with our EU partners. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the question of asset freezes. For the reasons I gave earlier, we do not believe that introducing asset freezes along the lines that the United States has introduced them would contribute to the objective we seek. Asset freezes would also need to meet legal tests. When assets are frozen by the UK or another democracy, they can find that such decisions are challenged in the courts. There are ongoing cases in which even UN and EU asset freezes against individuals are being challenged through the courts. There would have to be credible evidence that could, if necessary, be tested in a court to justify asset freezes in any individual case.

The promotion and protection of human rights continues to be a key priority in our bilateral relationship with Russia. In recent months, we have seen a worsening of the human rights situation in that country, whether in relation to the Magnitsky case, the restrictive legislative changes on freedom of assembly, the moves against the opposition, the inspections of non-governmental organisations, or the draft legislation to curtail freedom of assembly for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Those concerns are set out in the Foreign Office’s “Human Rights and Democracy” report, which the Foreign Secretary launched yesterday.

We will continue to press Russia to take the initiative to ensure that the Magnitsky case and other cases are brought to thorough and transparent conclusions. That would send a positive signal on the protection of human rights and democracy in Russia.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.