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Britain will take no real action against corrupt Russians in wake of Skripal poisoning

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Skripal poisoning

Enjoying her first real bounce in the polls since her embarrassing performance during last year’s UK general election, Prime Minister Theresa May’s tough stance on Russia in the wake of the nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter has been well received by British voters. An Opinium poll conducted on behalf of the Observer this weekend revealed that the overwhelming majority of the British public back May to deal with the scandal over Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has attracted criticism from members of his own party for failing to blame the Kremlin for the attack. Having swiftly made clear that the UK holds the Russian government responsible for the attempted murder of the Skripals on British soil, May put forward a number of measures designed to apply pressure to Vladimir Putin’s regime, including the passing of emergency legislation that would allow UK authorities to seize the assets of Russians who launder dirty money in Britain, and the targeting of the finances of Russian oligarchs living in the country.

While the UK government’s retaliatory plans against Moscow sound perfectly sensible, it has to be asked why Russian crooks and oligarchs have been allowed to use Britain, and particularly London, as a safe haven for their dirty money for so long, and whether anything will really change once the dust settles on the Skripal affair. For years now, authorities in the UK have turned a blind eye to where wealthy Russians living in Britain get their money from, looking the other way as highly-questionable characters bought up prime real estate, sent their children to some of the finest fee-paying schools in the country, and acquired shares in Premier League football clubs. Much in the same way that few things changed after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London over a decade ago, it seems unlikely that the status quo will be interrupted in any serious manner once the current flurry of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions peters out after the Skripals drop off the front pages, as they inevitably will.

The pernicious influence wealthy Russians have in the UK has become so deeply ingrained in the British public psyche that it has recently been successfully reflected in popular culture. At the beginning of the year, the BBC screened an eight-part drama series centred on the lives of a wealthy London-based Russian family involved in high-level organised crime. While the book on which McMafia was based was said to have been inspired by real events, a number of commentators remarked on how true to life the TV adaptation was, observing that the family it depicted was not dissimilar to some of those who had left Russia to set up home in the UK. Referencing McMafia while announcing a new UK government crackdown on crooked oligarchs based in Britain last month, Security Minister Ben Wallace told the Times that “fact is ahead of fiction”, and that while the series was an accurate portrayal of organised crime linked to Russia in the UK capital, reality is much more brutal. Wallace was unveiling new unexplained wealth orders (UWOs), a new legal tool that requires individuals to account for the source of any assets worth more than £50,000. The orders allow UK authorities to seize any assets until the money that was used to pay for them can be accounted for. The legislation was drafted with corrupt Russians in mind.

As with the retaliatory measures May announced in the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning, it remains to be seen whether UWOs will have any real impact on the rivers of dirty Russian money that flow into Britain every year. Speaking with the London Evening Standard as the fallout from the Salisbury nerve agent attack rumbled on last week, an executive from the National Crime Agency (NCA), the UK’s equivalent of the FBI, said only a handful of Russian oligarchs could be targeted with the orders. Donald Toon, Director of the NCA’s economic crime and cyber crime unit, said: “Under current circumstances, I cannot see significant numbers of unexplained wealth orders being used against Russians. It’s all about being able to set out for the court whether there is enough evidence to justify an order,”

Some have suggested that the Skripal affair could be May’s “Falklands’ moment”, referring to the way in which Margaret Thatcher used the 1982 conflict with Argentina over the islands to turn around her waning popularity. It may well be the case that May is able to use the current standoff with Russia over the Skripal affair to her advantage, but as has been the case after previous diplomatic spats between the two nations, it remains highly unlikely that wealthy Russians living in Britain will face any real new pressure from the UK government. Much like the UWOs announced by Wallace at the beginning of last month, any new measures targeting Russians living in the UK unveiled by Britain in the wake of the Skripal poisoning will most likely come to nothing. Once the current furore has blown over, ordinary service will be resumed, allowing crooked Russian gangsters to continue to using the UK as their money laundering location of choice.

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Dread Pirate Roberts 2.0 jailed for running second iteration of Silk Road dark web marketplace

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Dread Pirate Roberts 2.0 jailed for running second iteration of Silk Road

A jobless university drop-out from the UK city of Liverpool has been jailed after being convicted of running the Silk Road 2.0 dark web marketplace while collecting indecent images of children.

Liverpool Crown Court heard that Thomas White, 24, helped run the original Silk Road marketplace until it was closed down by FBI investigators in 2013.

Within a month of its shutdown, White had launched Silk Road 2.0, which like its predecessor was used by vendors to offer illicit items including drugs, weapons, cyber crime tools and stolen credit card details on the dark web.

White, who abandoned his accounting degree at Liverpool John Moores University after just one term, rented a £1,700 ($2,225)-a-month apartment on the waterfront in Liverpool city centre at the time of his arrest, despite ostensibly being unemployed.

While investigators from the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said they could not be sure how much money White made while operating Silk Road 2.0, it is estimated that illegal goods worth some $96 million were sold on the platform, on which he would take a commission of between 1% and 5%.

During a raid on White’s apartment, police discovered a laptop computer under his bed, which was found to contain 464 indecent images of children in the most serious category.

It later emerged that White had discussed setting up a hidden website on which to publish child abuse material during an online chat with a Silk Road 2.0 administrator.

Like Ross Ulbricht, who was jailed for life with no parole for running the original Silk Road marketplace in 2015, White used the online alias Dread Pirate Roberts, a reference to a fictional character in the novel the Princess Bride by William Goldman.

White was sentenced to more than five years behind bars.

Speaking after he was jailed, Ian Glover from the NCA said: “White was a well-regarded member of the original Silk Road hierarchy.

“He used this to his advantage when the site was closed down.

“We believe he profited significantly from his crimes which will now be subject to a proceeds of crime investigation.”

Separately, one of Britain’s most senior cyber detectives has warned that Europeans gangs are targeting autistic gamers in the hope of turning them into the next generation of hackers.

Peter Goodman, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for cyber crime, told the Press Association that more than eight out of 10 (82%) of young people being enlisted by online criminals develop skills while gaming, with many of those targeted on the autistic spectrum.

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Customs authorities in China seize record 7.5 tonnes of ivory as wildlife crime crackdown continues

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customs authorities in China seize record 7.5 tonnes of ivory

The Chinese government yesterday announced that customs officers had seized nearly 7.5 tonnes of ivory in one of the largest such discoveries in recent years.

According to China’s customs administration, which is currently conducting a crackdown on wildlife-related crime, the elephant tusks were confiscated as a result of an operation targeting an international organised crime gang that had been involved in the illicit ivory trade for a number of years

Investigators are reported to have arrested 26 suspected members of the smuggling network behind the conspiracy after the ivory was found stored in a number of boxes that were being stored in a discussed factory in a remote town in the eastern province of Anhui last month.

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, officials said the seizure was made up of 2,748 elephant tusks.

The ivory is said to have been trafficked into the country from Africa in containers labelled as carrying wood.

Addressing reporters, Deputy Director General of China Customs Hu Wei said his officers have investigated 182 cases of wildlife trafficking so far this year.

He added that these operations resulted in the disruption of 27 organised criminal networks, the arrest of 171 suspected wildlife traffickers, as well as the seizure of more than 500 tonnes of smuggled illicit wildlife products, including nearly 8.5 tonnes of ivory.

Commending the Chinese government on the seizure, TRAFFIC, and NGO that monitors wildlife crime across the globe, said in a statement: “[We congratulate] Customs on their successful enforcement actions, which send a firm signal that trafficking of endangered species will not be tolerated.

“TRAFFIC also encourages the authorities to ensure full and thorough investigations are carried out and offers its assistance in efforts to clampdown on the persistent trafficking of ivory and other endangered species, and in the longer-term goal of changing consumer behaviour and reducing the demand for illegal wildlife products.”

China, which is the largest importer of elephant tusks on the planet, banned the sale of ivory in 2017.

As in some other Asian countries, ivory remains popular in China, where it is used in traditional medicines and is seen as a status symbol.

Back in February, a Chinese woman nicknamed the “Ivory Queen” was sentenced to 15 years behind bars in Tanzania after she was convicted of smuggling hundreds of elephant tusks to her country of birth.

Yang Fenglan, then aged 69, is said to have been responsible for the trafficking of tusks from as many as 400 elephants worth an estimated $2.5 million, in what was described at the time as one of the largest ivory smuggling operations ever discovered in Africa.

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Malaysia Airlines cabin crew member jailed for smuggling 2.5kgs of high-purity heroin into Australia

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Malaysia Airlines cabin crew member jailed

A flight attendant who worked for Malaysia Airlines has been jailed for more than five years after being caught attempting to smuggle packages of heroin into Australia.

In what a judge described as a “clumsily executed” operation, Fariq Aqbal Omar boarded a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne in May last year while carrying 2.5kgs of high-purity heroin.

The drugs were estimated to have a street value of more than A$3 million ($2.2 million).

After the flight on which he was travelling landed in Melbourne, large bulges visible underneath Omar’s clothing attracted the attention of customs officers.

Observing the 34-year-old Malaysian national using security cameras, border guards watched him visit a bathroom after alighting from his flight.

While using the facilities, he decanted the 10 blocks of pure heroin that had been stuffed inside his trouser pockets and underneath his vest into a suitcase, before exiting the airport terminal and boarding a transfer bus with other cabin crew members.

All of the flight attendants were then asked to return to the terminal building with their luggage to be searched, at which point Omar attempted to remove the drugs from his suitcase and return them to his pockets.

When investigators found the packages, Omar told them he believed they contained illegal tobacco, but later pleaded guilty to importing a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug, claiming he was paid just A$500 to smuggle the heroin into Australia by a former colleague and another man.

Jailing Omar for five years and six months, Judge Wendy Wilmoth said it was incomprehensible that he had been persuaded to participate in the poorly thought-through smuggling attempt for such a small sum of money.

“Your actions have resulted in a very significant fall for you,” Australian broadcaster ABC News quotes Wilmoth as saying.

“This is something you should have considered before the importation.”

Omar will be eligible for parole after serving three years behind bars.

His lawyer, Thomas Mathew, told the New Straits Times: “Due to his limited involvement in the syndicate and minimum knowledge of its operations, our client’s role was at the very lowest of the range of the offences of this kind.

“Given his impeccable previous character, lack of prior offences in any country and the increased hardship that his imprisonment would involve due to the hardship his family are going through, the defence has sought the lowest sentence possible in the circumstances.”

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