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MPs seeking ‘fast-track’ freeze on oligarchs’ assets before formal sanctions | Ukraine

Russian oligarchs suspected of having links to Vladimir Putin could have their UK assets seized even before the British authorities have completed formal steps to impose sanctions, under far-reaching plans tabled for debate in parliament on Monday.

The move – put forward in an amendment to the economic crime bill by former Tory cabinet minister David Davis and backed by a cross-party group of MPs – would, if passed, amount to the toughest action yet to clamp down on illicit Russian cash in the UK.

On Friday the government made a number of moves to toughen the UK sanctions regime after widespread criticism that it has been slower to act than the EU and the US.

Undermining Boris Johnson’s claim that the UK has been leading the way on sanctions, ministers agreed that changes will be made to the economic crime bill to allow the UK to impose sanctions on any individual who has already been targeted by the EU or US.

They also agreed to reduce human rights protections that have until now shielded oligarchs with interests in the UK from sanctions.

The Davis amendment would, however, go much further, effectively setting up a fast-track route to allow the pre-emptive freezing of assets in cases that are merely under “review” but in which all formal legal processes necessary under current law have not been completed.

Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich is among those who would face having their assets seized without delay if the amendment to the economic crime bill is passed
Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich is among those who would face having their assets seized without delay if the amendment to the economic crime bill is passed. Photograph: Mark Pain/Alamy

The cross-party group of MPs that supports the move will meet to discuss tactics before Monday’s Commons debate.

The amendment says that ministers can act against “a person being considered as a subject for sanctions” in such a way that he or she would be prohibited from “selling any assets” or “moving any of their funds out of the United Kingdom”.

This would include land, houses, flats, businesses, yachts or boats and aircraft, potentially opening the way for the assets of oligarchs such as Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich to be seized without delay.

The Davis plan already has the support of senior Labour MPs, including Chris Bryant and Kevan Jones, as well as the Liberal Democrats’ Layla Moran and former Tory cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell.

Labour party sources believe that, if selected by the Speaker, it is likely to gain wide support across the House. Labour has been working closely with Tory ministers behind the scenes to tighten the sanctions rules in a spirit of cross-party cooperation.

Italian police sources said on Saturday that a villa owned by the billionaire businessman Alisher Usmanov on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia and a villa on Lake Como owned by state- TV host Vladimir Solovyov had both been seized.

Usmanov, who is a close business associate of Everton football club’s majority shareholder and was involved in several multimillion-pound sponsorship deals with the club, was sanctioned by the UK last week.

Yachts belonging to Russia’s richest man, Alexei Mordashov, and to Gennady Timchenko, who has close ties with Putin, were also impounded in northern Italian ports.Russian oligarchs are believed to have bought numerous villas in choice Italian locations over the past 20 years and sources said more assets were expected to be seized in coming days as western states implement massive sanctions to try to force Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.Italian banks were instructed by the Bank of Italy’s financial intelligence division on Friday to urgently let it know of all measures taken to freeze the assets of people and entities placed on the EU list.

About £1.1bn is known to be invested by Russians in London property, but whereas only 15 oligarchs have had sanctions imposed on them in the UK, the number is around double that in the EU.

The economic crime bill would establish a public register of “beneficial owners” of non-UK entities that own or buy land in the UK, operated by Companies House, giving the authorities the initial information they needed en route to imposing sanctions.

Any such person wishing to own UK property or land would need to identify their beneficial owners and register them. They would have six months from the time of the act coming into force to either sell off their land or register.

Labour will push on Monday for this period to be reduced to 28 days, arguing that a period of six months gives oligarchs too long a window to sell and move their assets.

The Davis amendment is among dozens put down by MPs of all parties in order to tighten the sanctions regime.Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge has tabled an amendment saying that overseas owners should have to register football clubs, jets or yachts as well as property and land on the new list.

Fellow Labour MP Bryant claimed last week that Abramovich is “terrified of being sanctioned” and is rushing to sell his UK properties in order to avoid potential financial sanctions.

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