Ministers blocked my questions on why they let a warlord sue a journalist
LIAM BYRNE: The government must be transparent about its decision to waive sanctions against Yevgeny Prigozhin
The news that a Russian warlord was gearing up to sue the BBC, revealed this week by openDemocracy, tells you everything you need to know about Britain’s broken sanctions regime.
It’s shocking, but for me at least, it’s not surprising. I came face to face with such failures when I tried to get information from the government about how it grants sanction waivers – only to be stonewalled by ministers.
In December 2021, Vladimir Putin’s favourite merchant of death, Yvegeny Prigozhin, the boss of the private Russian army the Wagner Group, was planning to launch a legal attack on the BBC – with the same UK government help that enabled him to sue British journalist Eliot Higgins.
Prigozhin had been sanctioned by the EU and the UK government in 2020. But he was so confident that Treasury officials would give him the green light to launch a legal attack on the Beeb that his solicitors in Russia began preparing the licence applications needed to pay his London lawyers.
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What an outrage. Some £18bn of Russian money has in theory been frozen, but oligarchs are free to spend the loot on whatever they like as long as they can extract a licence – in effect a sanctions waiver – from a Treasury department known as the Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation.
In August 2021, that little-known department had granted Prigozhin exactly such a licence – worth thousands of pounds – to fly his lawyers in London business class to St Petersburg to plan their assault on Higgins.
Prigozhin wanted Higgins, the founder of investigative website Bellingcat, discredited in a London courtroom after he exposed the warlord’s links to Putin, which Prigozhin believed had helped to trigger the sanctions against him. The Treasury was happy to help, issuing the sanctions waivers without so much as a quibble.
How did the Treasury give him a green light? We still don’t know, because ministers are stonewalling
When openDemocracy broke the scandal in January, Exchequer secretary James Cartlidge was hauled into the Commons to explain. In an extraordinary statement, he refused to comment on the specific case but said access to justice was a “fundamental” part of democracy, adding that this means “that individuals whom we find distasteful have a right to legal representation”.
This line was repeated by Leo Docherty, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for Europe, weeks later when he came before the Foreign Affairs Committee – of which I am a member – on 6 February.
Docherty, like Cartlidge, seemed unaware that the government’s General Guidance on UK Financial Sanctions makes clear that access to legal help is not in fact an unfettered right. He looked rather bamboozled when I read him the relevant section, which states that lawyers applying for a sanctions waiver must “carefully consider whether your advice and support for the client is helping them comply with sanctions or is participating in facilitating a breach”.
On this basis, Prigozhin’s lawyers were not entitled to cash for their bills as Prigozhin was literally trying to discredit the sanctions imposed upon him.
So how did the Treasury give him a green light? We still don’t know, because ministers are stonewalling.
In the Commons, Cartlidge told MPs that decisions over licenses and sanctions waivers are made by civil servants under a “delegated framework”. The next day, I tabled a parliamentary question asking to see the framework – only to be refused. I also asked for the total value of the sanctions waivers granted for legal costs over the past three years. Again, ministers refused to tell me. Instead, I was told: “The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation does not disclose data from specific licenses it has granted under UK sanctions regimes.”
I even asked for the value of licenses granted to pay Discreet Law, the law firm used by Prigozhin. Once again ministers refused to answer.
I was forced to turn to Freedom of Information requests to try to get answers. I was amazed at what I got back. The Treasury’s FOI team said it needs more time to consider my request, which it believes it may be able to refuse on the basis that the framework was “advice to ministers”.
So there we have it: ministers say the decisions on sanction waivers are down to civil servants, and civil servants say the governing framework is “advice to ministers” – that is what you call a conspiracy of silence.
This whole regime stinks. The Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation boasts in its own report that the grand total of just two fines have been issued for sanctions-busting – even though they record 147 reports of breaches of sanctions. Worse, ministers are refusing to disclose to Parliament how many criminal investigations there have been for sanctions evasion. I suspect that is because there have not been any.
This could not be more serious. The British government should not be helping a warlord to sue journalists for doing their jobs. It is time for ministers to come clean about what has gone wrong, so we can set to work and get it fixed.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
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