UK to use potent new tool to target corrupt elites

Suspects will have to prove multi-million pound assets were not bought with illicit cash

Berlin, Germany - February 13: In this Photo Illustration £ 20 pound sterling (Great Britain Pound - GBP) bills standing on a table on February 13, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo Illustration by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)
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Officials chasing the illicit wealth of corrupt elites and international criminals hidden in the UK plan to use a potent new legal tool to seize the property and assets of dozens of potential targets, documents show.

Britain’s leading fraud prosecutor said that he is combing his files for signs that criminals were hiding stolen assets in the UK. Law enforcement officials have also identified dozens of cases and are preparing two test cases to seize the assets of suspected criminals, according to a report in The Times.

Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) came into force in Britain this week which allow authorities to seize assets if the owner cannot explain how they got them through legal means. It copies similar measures in place in Ireland and Australia and do not require criminal convictions to seize assets.

The UWOs were part of a package of measures introduced last year to deal with the UK’s woeful record of seizing criminal cash, including the estimated £90 billion that is laundered through the UK every year.

That sum compares with only £255 million – of 0.3 per cent – that was recovered from criminals in 2015/16, which in itself was a record year.

The measure is expected to be used to target corrupt African politicians, international drug dealers and businesspeople with links to corrupt leaders in the Middle East and Russia.

“When we get to you we will come for you, for your assets and we will make the environment that you live in difficult,” Ben Wallace, the security minister, told the Times.

Anti-corruption group Transparency International, which had campaigned for the measure has identified five multi-million-pound properties in and around London that police should first consider seizing.

They included properties owned by people with links to Russia, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Pakistan and a senior military official under the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

Britain is one of the key centres of operations for corrupt powerbrokers to launder and invest their millions hidden behind a complex web of offshore company ownerships, with the aid of lawyers, accountants and financiers who chose to turn a blind eye to the source of the wealth. The UK’s private schools are also popular destinations for the children of corrupt elites.


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The law changes allow police to target previously untouchable corrupt elites since investigations previously would have been too difficult and costly, Nigel Kirby, deputy head of economic crime of the elite National Crime Agency (NCA) said in an interview last year.

The NCA set up an international corruption unit in 2015 that investigates dirty money flowing through Britain. Its former head said that it was investigating more than 20 of the world’s most corrupt politicians. It arrested Nigeria’s former oil minister in 2015.

A government impact statement released a year ago suggested that the UWOs would not be used in their first year of operation, and then only 20 times a year after that.

“Any law is only as good as its implementation and the extent to which UWOs are used will prove how serious the UK government is in fighting corrupt money,” said Rachel Davies Teka, head of advocacy at Transparency International UK.

“The introduction of Unexplained Wealth Orders must mark the turning point, where Britain removes the red carpet for corrupt individuals and their illicit wealth.”