Dictators and human rights abusers who buy luxury property in London and use the UK to conceal their wealth could have their assets seized under an MPs’ initiative.
A group of backbenchers are seeking to amend the government’s criminal finances bill and introduce a clause targeting those guilty of human rights abuses outside Britain. It would allow officials and organisations such as Amnesty International to apply for an order to freeze their UK assets.
The amendment is named after the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in Moscow in 2009 after exposing an alleged $230m (£181m) fraud carried out by leading Kremlin officials.
The initiative enjoys unusually wide cross-party support. Labour’s Chris Bryant said the chances of it becoming law were “quite positive”.
The bill, which could come into force as early as spring 2017, is designed to clean up London’s reputation as a haven for “dirty money”. Its existing provisions target corrupt politicians and international criminals who launder money through the capital’s banks and plough stolen cash into high-end real estate.
The National Crime Agency estimates that up to £100bn of dubious money passes through the UK a year. The Magnitsky amendment, which will be tabled on Monday, could result in high court judges passing two-year freezing orders on human rights abusers. There will be a right to appeal.
The Conservative MP Dominic Raab, who tabled the amendment, said: “People with blood on their hands for the worst human rights abuses should not be able to funnel their dirty money into the UK. This change in the law will protect Britain from becoming a safe place for despots and dictators to hide their money.”
The former Labour MP Denis MacShane said going after the London assets of state functionaries was “an updated version of getting Al Capone on tax evasion charges because it was not possible to bring him to justice for murder”.
“It will sow panic in the ranks of Putin apparatchiks who want to own flats and hide money in London, and send children to private schools in the UK,” he said.
Supporters of the proposal include the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas, the SNP and the Ukip MP Douglas Carswell. The Labour MP and former public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge said Britain had been “a safe haven for foreign kleptocrats and their ill-gotten gains” for too long, adding: “We hope this legislation will end this.”
The Home Office says the bill, introduced in October, will significantly improve the government’s ability to tackle money laundering and corruption, recover the proceeds of crime and impact upon terrorist financing. It follows an anti-corruption summit hosted by the then prime minister David Cameron in May and revelations in the Panama Papers that foreign autocrats and their families used offshore structures to buy London property.
Under the Magnitsky amendment, the names of individuals who have been involved in, or profited from, human rights abuse would be published. Ministers would be obliged to apply for an order if they are presented with compelling evidence of abuse and it is in the public interest to do so.
The amendment is the latest in a series of legislative initiatives around the world to end the impunity of those involved in the Magnitsky case and other human rights abuses. In 2012, the US Congress passed a Magnitsky act, which sanctioned the Russian officials involved and provoked a furious backlash from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.