Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Wagner mercenaries are currently fighting for Russia in Ukraine, was first sanctioned by the UK in 2020. However, it has recently been reported that in late 2021 Prigozhin was issued with special licences so he could override sanctions and pay legal fees. These fees related to legal action that Prigozhin took against British investigative reporter Eliot Higgins, after his website Bellingcat had published a story naming Prigozhin as the man behind the Wagner Group. The case was dropped when Prigozhin admitted his ties to the mercenary group.
The decision to issue Prigozhin with the sanctions waiver was taken by the Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation, a department in HM Treasury. Under UK law defining the Russian sanction regime, provisions allow sanctioned people to cover their “basic needs”, including the ability to apply for a licence to pay for legal fees.
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury has stated that it is a long-standing custom that the Government do not comment publicly on individual cases. The Minister added that it would not be appropriate to break that custom, even in a case as serious as this one, in which there is obviously public interest. However, the Minister did say that the Treasury is considering whether its existing approach is the right one and whether changes can be made without assuming unacceptable legal risk.
I am shocked by the evasive response given by the Minister. This is a perfect example of a strategic lawsuit against public participation, designed to silence critics through financial intimidation. Prigozhin is one of the most dangerous and notorious members of Putin’s inner circle. The Wagner Group, which he leads, is responsible for appalling atrocities in Ukraine and around the world.