The UK is looking into how the founder of the notorious Wagner mercenary group was able to hire a law firm to sue a British journalist despite being sanctioned.
Rishi Sunak, prime minister, said he was aware of a report that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and close ally of Vladimir Putin, had been given permission in 2021 to hire lawyers in London to sue Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, an investigations website.
Despite being under sanctions, Prigozhin applied to the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation for a licence to pursue the case.
“We’re looking at it,” Sunak told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
James Cartlidge, a Treasury minister, later said his department would look into the system of granting licences to sanctioned individuals
“The Treasury is now considering whether this approach is the right one and if changes can be made without the Treasury assuming unacceptable legal risk and ensuring the rule of law is upheld,” Cartlidge said on Wednesday, after an urgent question in the House of Commons.
However, he defended the principle that even the most notorious individuals should be allowed to solicit legal advice and insisted decisions under the system were made by civil servants, not ministers.
MPs from opposition parties and some from the governing Conservative party attacked the minister’s stance as “outrageous” and “complacent”.
The EU imposed sanctions on Prigozhin in November 2020 because of Wagner’s activities in the first phase of the war in Ukraine, launched in 2014.
Cartlidge gave no commitment that the government would take a more robust approach in future and said only that the review would conclude “in due course”.
Alicia Kearns, Conservative chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said the government should introduce “political oversight” to ensure ministers vetted similar applications.
David Davis, another Conservative MP, queried the use of frozen funds to pay for a defamation case. “There’s no fundamental right to use legal representation to destroy someone else,” Davis said.
Labour’s Chris Bryant said the government’s stance was “so complacent”, while another Labour MP, Liam Byrne, called it “outrageous”.
However, Cartlidge pointed out that even the suspects in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials after the second world war had been allowed legal representation. “The right to legal representation is a fundamental tenet of our democracy,” said Cartlidge.