Can sanctions on Russian oligarchs be used to confiscate illicit wealth? BCL partner John Binns writes for Money Laundering Bulletin exploring how UK law enforcement could move from a regime designed to freeze assets as a tool of foreign policy, to one that might achieve their permanent forfeiture.

Here is a short extract from the article*. If you wish to read the full article, please visit Money Laundering Bulletin website.

One of the tools used by the UK government in response to Russia's hostile actions in Ukraine is the targeted sanctions regime, which imposes (among other things) an effective asset freeze on designated persons (DPs). In the Russian context, some of these DPs are described or understood to be 'kleptocrats' or 'oligarchs' with the former term implying that at least some of those assets may have been acquired by corruption (though not necessarily in breach of local laws), and the latter implying they may be available for use by the Russian government, potentially in connection with its hostilities.

With such rhetoric in mind, expectations have been raised that the DPs' assets might not just be frozen, but also physically seized or permanently forfeited. As things stand, however, sanctions regimes (including the UK's) do not include forfeiture powers. Insofar as there is an appetite to pursue these assets, it is important to understand the existing landscape that might facilitate this, and what prospects there might be for changes.

Fundamentals in play

The context of this, of course, is the rights of private entities and individuals (even oligarchs) to hold property. English law's recognition of such rights predates the Magna Carta, the establishment of parliamentary supremacy, and even the creation of the UK itself, let alone its (relatively) modern articulation in Article 1, Protocol 1 (A1P1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

It is fair to say that the UK's current approach to tackling property said to be 'illicit' is more influenced by its historic membership of the EU than by any particular attention to the phenomena of kleptocrats and oligarchs in former Soviet states, including Russia; it has of course been crafted in the light of the ECHR as enforced by the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). But with EU relations and the HRA now in doubt, even these fundamentals are very much in play.

*This article was first published by Money Laundering Bulletin on 18 May 2022. If you wish to read the full article, please visit Money Laundering Bulletin  website.

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