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Sanctions (Human Rights Abuse and Corruption)

Volume 632: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable the Secretary of State to refuse entry, or to vary or curtail leave to enter or remain already granted, to a person who is a non-UK or non-EEA national who is known to be, or to have been, involved in gross human rights abuses or in certain acts of corruption; to make provision for financial sanctions against a person who is a non-UK or non-EEA national who is known to be, or to have been, involved in gross human rights abuses or in certain acts of corruption; and for connected purposes.

Or, Mr Speaker, as laws like this are known around the world, a Magnitsky Act. I speak today in memory of Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Russian police custody eight years ago. The story of his death is an allegory of Vladimir Putin’s Russia: brutal, corrupt and oppressive. Vladimir Putin and Sergei Magnitsky could not have been more different. Putin is an unreconstructed KGB thug and gangster who loots his country and murders his opponents in Russia and here, as we know, on the streets of London. Sergei Magnitsky was a brave and incorruptible accountant and lawyer who was arrested, detained in squalid, often freezing, prisons, tortured and denied medical attention. After a year, on 16 November 2009, he was beaten by eight riot guards in a Moscow prison, while he was chained to a bed, until he died, at the age of 37, leaving a wife and two children.

Magnitsky was targeted and eventually killed because he exposed a huge $230 million tax fraud involving senior Russian Government officials. The United States, Canada, Estonia and Lithuania have passed legislation imposing visa bans and asset freezes on those people who were responsible for his terrible fate and also on those responsible for similar appalling abuses of human rights and acts of corruption elsewhere. The American Magnitsky Act, for example, was a bipartisan Bill introduced by Senator John McCain and was passed in 2012 by 92 votes to four in the Senate and by 90% of members of the House of Representatives. Similar legislation is under development in South Africa, France, Ukraine and Gibraltar.

These pieces of legislation make use of two modes of punishing these corrupt officials and organised criminals: asset freezes and travel bans. Here in the UK, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) introduced the Magnitsky amendment to the Criminal Finances Bill, which introduced the asset-freezing element of a Magnitsky law to the UK and which was passed with cross-party support earlier this year. But there still is no legislation that deals with visa bans for human rights violators and so far no assets have been frozen, so my proposals would go much further and give the Government powers to sanction individuals found guilty of corruption and human rights abuse with visa bans, asset freezes and public placement on a list of banned foreign criminals.

Magnitsky was arrested, tortured and killed by the people responsible for the crime he was investigating. In a terrible reminder of the Stalin era, there was then a posthumous show trial in which he was tried and convicted of the tax fraud he had been killed for investigating. The comparisons between Putin’s brutal kleptocracy and Communist-era brutality do not end there. Just like in the past, Putin’s Russia murders its opponents at home and—as we saw with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko—here on the streets of London as well.

The Memorial Human Rights Centre, the most respected human rights organisation in Russia, recently published its annual report about political prisoners, showing that 117 people are in Russian prisons today for no other reason than their opposition to the Government. To put that in context, in his 1975 Nobel lecture Andrei Sakharov listed 126 prisoners of conscience in the USSR. Just like in the Soviet era, there is censorship and Government-driven propaganda in all the major media outlets—not just in Russia but here in the west, and the UK too, with outlets such as RT and Sputnik.

Just like in the Soviet era, there are no free or fair elections and opponents of the Government are routinely and publicly denounced as enemies, traitors and foreign agents, but, as Vladimir Kara-Murza, the vice-chair of Open Russia, which promotes civil society and democracy in Russia, explained to me, for all these parallels, there is one major difference. Members of the Soviet Politburo were not able to hide their money in western banks, send their children to study in western schools, or buy expensive property across London and the home counties. That is exactly what the people running Russia today are doing: they steal in Russia and spend in the west.

There is no doubt that London is one of the main destinations for money looted from Russia and elsewhere. Huge sums of the money stolen in the tax fraud that Magnitsky was investigating were subsequently laundered out of Russia. Hermitage Capital Management submitted detailed evidence to the UK authorities of $30 million that was smuggled into Britain between 2008 and 2012, some of it by firms run or owned by the Russian mafia, but no UK investigation has been launched, so the Magnitsky case also shines a light on weaknesses in our own justice system.

According to a 2016 report by the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs, £100 billion is laundered through the UK’s banks each year, yet the National Crime Agency estimates that only 0.2% of that amount is frozen. They might as well put up a sign at Heathrow to welcome Putin’s crooks and gangsters.

It is very clear a measure such as this would have a real impact. Putin’s reaction to the US legislation proves that beyond doubt. He declared that repealing the Magnitsky Act was his single largest foreign policy priority. He got so angry about the legislation that the Russian Government banned Americans from adopting sick and ill Russian children. Healthy children are not put up for adoption by western families, but so squalid is the behaviour of Putin’s regime that he is prepared to punish sick Russian orphans, who often die in an orphanage if they are not adopted by foreigners.

The Home Secretary may say that she already has the right to refuse visas for anyone, but that power is not currently being used. Many of the most pernicious human rights abusers from Russia and elsewhere are able to come to and go from Britain as they please. Furthermore, to the extent that someone is banned, the Government refuse to disclose their names. A specific statutory provision aimed at sanctioning those involved in human rights abuses would both focus the attention of those applying that law and introduce greater transparency in the exercise of powers to impose visa bans. The public have a right to know who has been banned from entering the country, and perhaps more importantly, a right to know who has not been banned despite there being a convincing case that they are personally responsible for committing grave human rights transgressions.

I want to make a final point before I conclude. Putin and the Kremlin claim such measures are somehow anti-Russian, but nothing could be further from the truth. The late Boris Nemtsov said the opposite when he called the Magnitsky Act the

“most pro-Russia act ever passed in a foreign country.”

A law like this is not aimed at the Russian people; it is aimed at those who murder Russian people and steal from Russian people. We should be very clear that there is a world of difference between the Russian people and their country on the one hand, and the kleptocratic, authoritarian dictatorship that misrules it on the other.

Sergei Magnitsky was an ordinary man, but he was clearly also an exceptionally brave man. He died because he believed it was wrong for corrupt officials to enrich themselves by stealing from the people with impunity, and that it was wrong that such a power should operate without being checked by the rule of law. He was arrested on trumped-up charges, held in horrific conditions in pre-trial detention for a year, beaten and eventually killed.

It is up to us whether or not Sergei Magnitsky’s death means something. If we choose to ignore rule by force and fail to challenge the corrupt pillaging of money belonging to the Russian state and, by extension, to the Russian people, he died for nothing. However, if we act against those responsible for his death and the crimes he uncovered, and against similar people across the world, his death will have achieved something. He died for the idea that if people transgress the basic norms of human liberty in a democracy, there are consequences. We can show that if people commit these crimes, they may not enjoy the freedom to travel and spend their stolen money across the globe, because they will be pursued for their wrongdoing.

There is something else at stake here. Our country invented the very idea of liberty, and we wrote the laws by which much of the world is run. Democracy, freedom, fairness, respect for the law—these are the values that make this the greatest country in the world. It is easy to boast about our commitment to these values, but they must stand for something too, and that is why we cannot ignore appalling crimes such as Sergei Magnitsky’s brutal murder.

Question put and agreed to.


That Ian Austin, Mr Kenneth Clarke, Mr Andrew Mitchell, Mr John Whittingdale, Mr Ben Bradshaw, Yvette Cooper, Tom Tugendhat, Rachel Reeves, Ian Blackford, Caroline Lucas, Tom Brake and Dame Margaret Hodge present the Bill.

Ian Austin accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February 2018, and to be printed (Bill 139).