Ben Keith along with Rhys Davies at Temple Garden Chambers comments in the Independent on the new Magnitsky sanctions regime and its impact on human rights.

This article was originally published by The Independent on Friday 17 July 2020. 

Our Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act was passed in 2018. Last week the Foreign Secretary finally gave it some teeth.

Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer who was beaten to death in Moscow’s Butyrka prison after he exposed large-scale fraud by Russian state officials. Since then, various countries – now including the UK – have passed legislation which allows the direct sanctioning of individuals believed to be guilty of serious humans rights abuses. On Monday, shortly before meeting with Magnitsky’s widow, Dominic Raab imposed sanctions including asset freezes and travel restrictions on 49 individuals and organisations who stand accused of serious human rights violations in recent years.

At the moment, those sanctions only stretch to citizens of four countries – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and North Korea. It is probably fair to say that most of the people on that list weren’t planning to do their shopping in Harrods this Christmas anyway. But the announcement of the sanctions nonetheless seemed to send a clear message to human rights abusers around the world that Britain is no longer prepared to allow them to hide their assets, spend their money and visit London with impunity.

In addition to the 25 Russians on the list who are said to have had a hand in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, 20 Saudi Arabian subjects who are accused of involvement in the murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, are also named. Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser and close adviser of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, is listed too. He is currently being tried in absentia in Turkey for the gruesome killing of Khashoggi, and has already been sanctioned by the US.

The UK’s actions will doubtless worsen Anglo-Russian relations, which are already poor, and also put the UK on a collision course with Saudi Arabia. The Russian Embassy in the UK has, perhaps unsurprisingly, already claimed that all the questions surrounding Sergei Magnitsky’s death were answered long ago, and the threats of reciprocal action from the Kremlin came shortly afterwards. The Saudi Arabians have already acquitted or pardoned seven individuals accused of the murder in a trial described as “the antithesis of justice” by UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Agnes Callamard. Nevertheless, the UK’s actions represent both a bold and moral step in achieving justice for Sergei Magnitsky, Jamal Khashoggi and others. At least, on the surface.

Whether Britain is willing to deploy these powers or whether they will have any deterrent effect remains in question. The sort of person who is prepared to dismember a body in a Consulate on foreign soil may not be overly concerned with his ability to have dinner in a Mayfair restaurant. But there can be no doubt that the impact of US and UK sanctions, alongside the likely impact of a proposed EU Magnitsky law, will seriously wound some of those individuals, many of whom have very deep pockets, by denying their ability to travel and depriving them of their London mansions.

Dominic Raab has a history of campaigning for a UK Magnitsky Act and his steps this week are likely to mean that some measure of justice can be achieved for victims of repressive regimes around the world. However, this week also saw the government sign-off on the resumption of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite the Saudi involvement in the bloody conflict in Yemen which has killed thousands of civilians. It was also reported that the UK Defence Minister called the government of Saudi Arabia the day after the sanctions were announced to privately apologise.

If true, that suggests that not much has changed, and what the government says in public is very different to what they do in private.

The real challenge for the British government will be to demonstrate that it is prepared to do more than just pay lip service. It remains to be seen if they will impose sanctions on human rights abusers consistently, and not just against wrongdoers in rogue states or those left exposed in the most high-profile and infamous cases.

The UK should remain firm and no longer welcome abusers to use the UK as their playground and piggy bank.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5SAH, specialising in Extradition and International Crime. As well as dealing with Immigration, Serious Fraud, and Public law. He has extensive experience of appellate proceedings before the Administrative and Divisional Courts, Criminal and Civil Court of Appeal as well as applications and appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and United Nations.