Britain, charting its own course on human rights, imposes new sanctions

By Mark Landler

Britain, seeking to carve out a post-Brexit role as a human-rights defender, said Monday it had blacklisted dozens of people from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar for abuses ranging from a carefully-plotted execution to jailhouse beatings and the persecution of Rohingya refugees.

It was the first time since leaving the European Union in January that Britain imposed its own sanctions for human-rights violations. British officials cast the move as proof that the country can play an influential global role on its own, with some noting that the EU has yet to adopt similar sanctions.

Among the 47 people who face travel bans and frozen assets in Britain are 25 Russians accused of aiding and abetting in the death of Sergei L. Magnitsky and 20 Saudis accused in the assassination of dissident Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi. It also sanctioned two high-ranking generals from Myanmar and two North Korean organizations responsible for the isolated country’s brutal prison system.

Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, died after brutal treatment while in detention on false charges in 2009, and is the namesake for the Magnitsky Act, under which the United States blacklists human rights abusers. Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, at the hands of Saudi agents.

“As we forge a dynamic new vision for a truly global Britain, this government is absolutely committed to the United Kingdom being an even stronger force for good in the world,” the British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said in Parliament, using a phrase he and other Brexiteers coined to describe the international role that they hoped a newly independent Britain would play.

“If you’re a kleptocrat or an organized criminal,” Raab added, “you will not be able to launder your blood money in this country.”

As a practical matter, being on Britain’s blacklist will probably do little to change the lives of the people whose names were included in the announcement. The British government drew its first batch of names from individuals already blacklisted by the United States. That means they are already effectively banned from dealing with British banks, since the Treasury Department enforces its measures globally through the threat of secondary sanctions.

Still, Britain’s use of human rights sanctions gives it a weapon that it could apply more widely in the future, including against Chinese officials involved in the country’s mass internment of Uighurs or the recent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Conservative lawmakers pressed Raab about why the list did not include any Chinese officials, and he replied that the government would continue to add names. But analysts said they did not expect Britain to designate Chinese officials, given the complex commercial ties between the two countries.

Britain has been involved in a brewing clash with China since the Chinese government imposed a new national security law over Hong Kong in June. Prime Minister Boris Johnson criticized the move and invited nearly 3 million people in the former British colony — those who hold British overseas passports — to live and work in Britain.

A onetime human-rights lawyer, Raab has lobbied for Britain to adopt Magnitsky-style sanctions since he was on the Conservative backbench in Parliament. Britain passed the necessary legislation two years ago but held off designating anyone on the list until after it formally left the EU.

Raab paid tribute to the memory of Magnitsky and afterward met at the Foreign Office with the lawyer’s widow, Natalia, and his son, Nikita, as well as with William F. Browder, an American-born British financier who employed Magnitsky and has long campaigned for British sanctions in his name.

“Britain has an outsized role in this area because most tin-pot dictators have bought mansions here, send their kids to boarding school here and kept their money here,” Browder said. “Any sanctions on those things has a very chilling effect for all these bad guys around the world.”

London has long been a preferred sanctuary for unsavory people with unlimited means. Many own apartments or houses in Chelsea or Belgravia, affluent neighborhoods in West London, and send their children to exclusive British schools, and, as Raab put it, “do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge.”

Among those on the blacklist are Aleksey Vasilyevich Anichin and Oleg Silchenko, who served on an Interior Ministry committee that investigated Magnitsky on trumped-up charges. Both are accused of taking part in his mistreatment and ignoring signs of his deteriorating condition while in a Moscow prison.

Among the Saudis named are Ahmed al-Asiri, a former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence service, and Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who some have accused of ordering Khashoggi’s killing. Both men have been indicted in Istanbul and will stand trial in absentia for directing the 15-man hit squad that flew to Turkey from Saudi Arabia to carry out the killing.

Raab said he hoped the European Union would follow Britain’s lead. But there was more than a hint of satisfaction in his tone. Britain had broken free from the need for consensus, which has so far prevented the 27-member bloc from agreeing to such sanctions. Hungary has been among those who have balked at them.

“Even if they have a human rights sanctions regime in place, would they use it like the U.S. or U.K.?” said Emil Dall, an expert in sanctions at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “What we often see in the EU is a lowest common denominator when it comes to sanctions.”

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