ELIOT Higgins, a freelance journalist, published a string of stories on his Bellingcat website which revealed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of a Russian private army, was serving “as a deniable veneer and a round-tripping money laundering channel for government-mandated overseas operations”.

Wagner, Prigozhin’s company, was revealed by Bellingcat, to have close ties to the Kremlin. His group of mercenaries have been involved in operations in Ukraine and also have posted online videos of themselves engaging in the torture and murder of a Syrian civilian near Palmyra.

Now openDemocracy has revealed that sanctions introduced in 2020 which were supposed to stop Russian oligarchs from doing business were bypassed in order to allow Higgins to be sued. In an item based on a series of hacked emails, the campaigning website reveals that “the UK Treasury issued special licences in 2021 to let the oligarch override sanctions and launch an aggressive legal campaign against a journalist in the London courts”. That sanction-busting took place when current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was still Chancellor.

The openDemocracy investigation alleges that, not only did the British Government grant sanction-busting licences to allow a British law firm to work on the case, they also allowed British lawyers to fly business class to St Petersburg to meet with Prigozhin’s representatives to plan their legal attack in an attempt to get round the global sanctions.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Higgins accused the Government’s OSFI department of becoming “embroiled in a scheme to undermine the very sanctions they were responsible for governing”.

The case was brought against Higgins in his home country, rather than the Netherlands where Bellingcat is situated, because of the more punitive libel laws. In the event, the London firm responsible for the case withdrew and the case collapsed, though Higgins has been left with legal fees of £70,000.

What this case highlights is the murky world of international finance and arms dealing. This is not a world that governments are keen to have exposed. So, whilst Russia may be the enemy currently and sanctions are being applied, it would appear from the evidence of both Bellingcat and openDemocracy that ‘sanctions’ is a relative term. If it is necessary to break them in order to pursue investigative journalists, it would seem that the British Government has no problem doing so.

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