After reports that the Treasury helped the head Russia’s notorious mercenary Wagner Group bypass UK sanctions, the Treasury is now reviewing its processes.
James Cartlidge (exchequer secretary) confirmed that a review was underway about the Treasury’s decision making but couldn’t comment publicly on Yevgeny Prgozhin, Wagner Group boss.
OpenDemocracy, an investigative website, reported that a small Treasury team issued licenses to allow British lawyers help Mr. Prigozhin – once dubbed “Putin’s chef” – launch libel actions against Elisa Higgins, Bellingcat journalist in the UK in 2021.
The UK was imposing sanctions on the Russian Oligarch at the time.
The Wagner Group has been recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine. It is heavily involved with Russia’s offensive. According to Ukraine, its fighters have been killed in the thousands.
For tweets and articles about the Russian and Wagner Group’s operations, in Africa and the Middle East as well as his connections to the Kremlin, Mr Prigozhin brought legal action against Mr Higgins.
Mr Cartlidge stated that the Treasury’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation(Ofsi), when sanctioned individuals are allowed to file lawsuits, follows strict rules because “everyone has the right to legal representation”.
Labour claimed that the government gave a waiver for a warlord to pursue legal action. It said it was intended to intimidate critics of Mr Prigozhin.
MPs have asked the government to declare Wagner Group a terrorist organization.
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On Wednesday, Mr Higgins’s situation was raised in an urgent question in Parliament. Mr Cartlidge replied: “It has been a long-standing tradition that the government doesn’t comment publicly on individual cases.
“It would be inappropriate to break this tradition even in a serious case like this where there is clearly public interest.”
Mr Cartlidge described Ofsi’s approach by saying: “Applications can only be assessed on a cost basis. As a country with checks & balances, it is right for the relevant court to decide the outcome of a case’s substantive merits, rather than the government.”
“However, I can verify that, in light of recent case and related to this query, the Treasury is currently considering whether this approach is right and if any changes can be made to it without the Treasury taking unacceptable legal risks and ensuring we follow the rule of law.”
He said that Prime Minister Rishi Unak, at the time chancellor, was not involved in deciding whether Mr. Prigozhin should receive permission.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy stated: “The government appears have granted waiver for a warlord which enabled him to launch an legal attack against a British journalist.
“This is an excellent example of a Slapp lawsuit (strategic lawsuit against the public participation), designed to silence critics by financial intimidation.
Alicia Kearns (Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee) urged the government “to commit to looking at whether it is necessary to introduce ministerial supervision” on the process.
David Davis, a Conservative ex-cabinet minister, said: “Ofcourse you have right of representation if your case is being defended in court.
“There is no fundamental rights to use legal representation in order to harm another person or to shut down free speech.”
Mr Cartlidge responded: “I believe that the right of legal representation is fundamental tenets of our democracy and it can mean that individuals or persons we – I’m not commenting in the particular case – but that individuals or persons we find objectionable have the right to legal counsel.
“Let’s not forget that even at Nuremberg trials, those who had committed the most horrific crimes in Western history were legally represented.”
Former Labour minister Liam Byrne claimed that Mr Cartlidge had “just confessed” that sanctions implementation were “outside ministerial control”. This was denied by the minister.
“We sanctioned Prigozhin as he was operating a ‘deniable military capability of the Russian state’,” Mr Byrne stated to the Commons.
“Ten months later, civil servants under his supervision signed off PS3,500 business class flights, PS320 luxury accommodation at Grand Hotel Europe Belmond, and PS150 for subsistence.
Let’s get very clear about the contents of the emails that were leaked from that conversation. They reveal that Prigozhin’s lawyers wanted to sue Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat ‘because public rebuttal is one of his reasons for his sanction designation’.
“He paid money to a warlord for him to prosecute an English journalist in a English court to weaken the sanctions regime he is responsible for.”
“This is absurd, it has to change. It’s time to change it now.”