UK on collision course with Saudis over new human rights sanctions

Patrick Wintour and Luke Harding
·6-min read

The UK set itself on a diplomatic collision course with one of its key allies after introducing long-awaited sanctions against human rights abusers, including a close aide to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The measures announced by Dominic Raab on Monday against individuals in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea include asset freezes and travel bans and represent the first time the UK will alone name and penalise individuals and organisations accused of human rights abuse. The measures came into force immediately.

“Those with blood on their hands won’t be free … to waltz into this country, to buy up property on the Kings Road, do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or siphon dirty money through British banks,” Raab told parliament.

“You cannot set foot in this country, and we will seize your blood-drenched ill-gotten gains if you try.”

The sanctions will cover threats to “an individual’s right to life”, freedom from torture or slavery and will be aimed not just at those directly committing human rights abuses, but those who are benefiting and profiting from them.

Raab said the sanctions would target 25 Russian nationals involved in the death of the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, 20 Saudi nationals involved in the murder of the journalist Khashoggi, two high-ranking generals implicated in the systemic killing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, and two organisations using forced labour in North Korea.

Chief among the individuals named is Saud al-Qahtani, who US authorities believe oversaw the team that killed Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Raab said the inclusion of senior Saudi officials on the list alongside more familiar British foes such as Russia showed the UK would not be selective in its application of the sanctions.

The Foreign Office has in the past said government officials were responsible for the murder, but not the state and pointed out that the crown prince had taken full responsibility for the crime and said all those responsible in Saudi Arabia must be held to account.

The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, urged the government to draw wider conclusions about its alliance with Saudi Arabia.

The move against individuals, separate from a country-wide sanctions regime, follows the passage of the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act setting up an independent post-Brexit sanctions regime. Previously the UK was obliged to follow the EU and UN regimes.

MPs universally welcomed the measures, but the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, noted the silence about the inclusion of any Chinese officials involved in the repression of Uighur Muslims. Some MPs also called for Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive, to be designated as a result of her support for the new security laws imposed by Beijing.

Raab, a long-term campaigner for the measures, said the individuals sanctioned on Monday were a first step and he would welcome MPs proposing names to add to the list. He revealed work was already under way to use the law to target corruption, a criteria that is included in parallel US and Canadian legislation.

The sanctions are named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died from mistreatment in a Moscow jail in 2009 after he disclosed a $230m tax fraud at Hermitage, a UK-based asset management company. Similar regimes exists in the US, Canada, and the EU’s Baltic state members. The EU agreed in December to adopt a Magnitsky law but has yet to follow through.

The proposals were welcomed by Hermitage’s chief executive, Bill Browder, who has campaigned internationally for the sanctioning of the individuals behind Magnitsky’s death. The US Congress passed a Magnitsky Act in 2012 initially blocking 18 Russian officials from entering the US and denying them access to US banking facilities.

Browder described the UK government’s initiative as a “huge milestone” in the campaign. “Most kleptocrats and human rights violators keep their money in the UK, have houses in London, and send their kids to British schools. This will have a stinging effect on bad guys around the world,” he said.

“It’s been a long and difficult journey to convince the British government to do this. It took eight years. The Magnitsky family is finally finding some justice. Sergei was working for a British firm when he was murdered.”

Sergei Magnitsky
The sanctions are named after Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Emil Dall, a research fellow at the defence thinktank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said such regimes allowed a government “to respond to specific concerns with a country without interfering with wider considerations such as a trade deal”.

Raab is aware of the risk of retribution, but believes the structure of the sanctions, targeted at individuals rather than the country or its leadership, reduces the danger of countermeasures. Following the murder of Khashoggi in October 2018 for which Saudi diplomats in the UK have apologised, Riyadh has been less aggressive diplomatically.

The sanction designations exclude Prince Mohamed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, but are bound to be seen as a British rejection of Saudi justice. Qahtani was not even tried in the secretive Saudi court case that ended in December 2019 with five defendants sentenced to death. Ahmed al-Asiri, the former deputy head of military intelligence, was cleared at the trial for lack of evidence.

But given the scale of human rights abuse around the world by various authoritarian regimes, the Foreign Office (FCO) will inevitably face a battle to convince campaigners that individuals or countries have not been excluded due to wider UK diplomatic or trade interests. Ministers will also face claims that they are willing to select lesser officials in a country for sanction, but not accept that in wholly authoritarian regimes the climate is set by the leaders.

The FCO insisted it would designate the most relevant official. Ministers, aware that the regime will be subject to legal challenge, have also stressed that the sanctions must not be seen as punishment from which there is no hope of exit, but instead are designed to encourage better behaviour and relief from sanctions. Other measures are available to punish wrongdoing.

The Russians sanctioned include Alexander Bastrykin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin and the head of Russia’s investigative committee. The government alleges Bastrykin failed to investigate the death and mistreatment of Magnitsky, either “intentionally or recklessly”. The US sanctioned him in 2017.

Other Russians hit by the measures include doctors who worked at the Moscow prisons where Magnitsky was held, and interior ministry officials and investigators. Several were allegedly involved in covering up Magnitsky’s death in custody in 2009. All are now subject to UK travel bans and asset freezes.

The targeting of Bastrykin is likely to infuriate the Kremlin and prompt an aggressive and possibly asymmetric response. In 2012 Vladimir Putin responded to similar measures adopted by the US Congress by banning the adoption of Russian orphans by American parents.

Russia on Monday threatened to retaliate over the measures.

“The Russian side reserves the right to take retaliatory measures in connection with Britain’s hostile decision,” the Russian embassy in London said in a statement, without giving details.

The mission said Moscow was particularly outraged by the sanctioning of top directors of Russia’s Investigative Committee and General Prosecutor’s Office as well as judges.

“In Russia, investigators, prosecutors and judges carry out their responsibilities independently of executive authorities and are guided by law alone,” the embassy said.