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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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Transnational crime syndicates flood Southeast Asia to exploit weak regional governance, UN study warns

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transnational crime syndicates flood Southeast Asia

A new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has cautioned that organised crime networks operating in Southeast Asia are generating record and even dangerous levels profit.

In a study titled Transnational Organised Crime in Southeast Asia: Evolution, Growth and Impact,  the agency warns that recent law enforcement activity in the region and its surrounding areas has resulted in illicit groups altering their trafficking routes while transferring and scaling up their activities in locations with poor governance, partially around border areas.

Synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine have become the most valuable illicit market for crime syndicates active in the Southeast Asia region, partly on account of law enforcement action in China forcing narcotics producers to look for new production bases.

According to the report, transnational organised crime networks operating in Burma in cooperation with militias and ethnic armed groups are manufacturing and trafficking both crystalline and tablet methamphetamine.

The study also reveals that the region has become a hub for the global trade in counterfeit consumer goods and illicit pharmaceuticals, noting that Southeast Asia is a key transit point for illicit tobacco products and bogus medicines.

Elsewhere, the report reveals motorcycle gangs from Australia are relocating to the region in order to set up new chapters involved in drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering and other crimes.

The Australian gangs are said to have moved into the region to set up bases for their methamphetamine and drug precursor chemical operations after coming under increased pressure from police back in their home country.

UNODC concludes that the growing power and influence of organised crime in Southeast Asia is allowing illicit syndicates to use their financial muscle to further corrupt and undermine the rule of law, and that these groups now represent a primary threat to the public security, health and sustainable development of the region.

Speaking as the report was unveiled, UNODC Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas commented: “Organised crime groups are generating tens of billions of dollars in Southeast Asia from the cross-border trafficking and smuggling of illegal drugs and precursors, people, wildlife, timber and counterfeit goods.

“Profits have expanded and illicit money is increasingly moving through the regional casino industry and other large cash flow businesses.

“Southeast Asia has an organised crime problem, and it is time to coalesce around solutions to address the conditions that have allowed illicit businesses to grow, and to secure and cooperate along borders.”

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Colombian man caught with half kilo of cocaine under wig at Barcelona airport

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Police working at Barcelona’s El Prat international airport have arrested a man who was found to have half a kilo of cocaine concealed beneath an ill-fitting hairpiece.

Officers spotted the man after he arrived on a flight from the Colombian capital of Bogota.

They noticed that he was acting in a nervous manner and appeared to be sporting a disproportionately large hairpiece under a hat.

After taking him to one side for a search, investigators discovered a package of white powder that had been stuck to the man’s head underneath the outsized toupee.

The 65-year-old was arrested immediately, and was later charged after tests confirmed that the white powder was cocaine that was estimated to be worth €30,000 ($33,390).

In one photograph released by Spain’s national police force, the man can be seen from the side wearing a wig that protrudes to an unnatural height over the top of his head.

Another shot taken from the front shows the package of cocaine clearly visible beneath the hairpiece.

In a statement cited by the Reuters news agency, Spanish police said: “There is no limit to the inventiveness of drug traffickers trying to mock controls.”

Spain, which is one of the main entry points for cocaine exported into Europe from Colombia, has seen several novel large-scale smuggling attempts over the course of the past year, the majority of which appeared to have benefitted from better planning than the wig conspiracy.

Back in June, Spanish police revealed they had arrested 11 suspected traffickers after discovering a tonne of cocaine hidden inside fake stones shipped into the country from South America.

Investigators released a video that showed officers smashing open the bogus stones to discover 785 packages of cocaine, each of which was estimated to contain more than 1kg of the drug.

Just weeks earlier, police in the country announced they had smashed a South American organised trafficking network that injected large quantities of cocaine into plastic pellets before smuggling them to three specialist laboratories in Madrid and Toledo, where the drugs would be extracted by experts who had been flown in from Colombia.

Last August, Spanish investigators intercepted 67kgs of cocaine that had been concealed inside pineapple skins.

The gang behind the plot had hollowed out fresh pineapples before filling their skins with cylinders containing as much as 7kgs of cocaine each.

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Wildlife trade NGO TRAFFIC holds two-day workshop intended to improve animal crime conviction rates across India

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Wildlife trade NGO TRAFFIC holds two-day workshop

Illicit animal trade monitoring network TRAFFIC has helped organise a two-day conference in India intended to help local law enforcement officials improve wildlife crime conviction rates.

Held in cooperation with WWF-India, the Maharashtra Judiciary Academy and the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (Life), the event was designed to improve the knowledge of police officers responsible for wildlife crime in Maharashtra, Goa and Daman.

Dr Saket Badola, Head of TRAFFIC’s India office, said: “For any law in force, it is often not only the level of punishment but the surety of timely conviction, which act as crime deterrents.

“Proper orientation of judicial officers will ensure better implementation of wildlife, forest and environmental laws and help in controlling the crime.”

Commenting on efforts to crack down on wildlife crime in his region, Justice BP Dharmadhikari, Director of the Maharashtra Judicial Academy, said: “Over a period of time, Maharashtra has taken steps and passed several resolutions in the prevailing legal systems to protect and better manage the environment and forests.

“Most of the judges present may be dealing with such cases—therefore this orientation programme is very apt, timely and necessary.”

It was revealed earlier this month that a global crackdown on wildlife crime coordinated by Interpol and the World Customs Organisation (WCO) resulted in law enforcement officials in India making several seizures.

As part of the operation, Indian investigators discovered an infant langur that had been smuggled into the country from Bangladesh.

Elsewhere, the Indian Wildlife Crime Control Bureau seized a lesser flamingo from a pet shop, as well as live parakeets and munias during road checkpoint inspections.

The bureau was also involved in the discovery a smuggled lion cub that had been brought into the country from Bangladesh, and was scheduled for onward trafficking to the UK.

Back in February of this year, border inspectors working at India’s Chennai Airport in the state of Tamil Nadu stopped a man who was attempting to smuggle a weeks-old leopard cub into the country concealed inside his suitcase.

The man, who had arrived on a flight from Bangkok, was stopped when customs officials observed him behaving strangely while attempting to leave the terminal building, and then heard faint whimpering emanating from his luggage.

Indian and Burmese officials last year agreed at a bilateral summit to work more closely together to fight wildlife smuggling and drug trafficking on the border between the two countries.

In a statement issued last October, officials said: “It was… agreed to cooperate in preventing smuggling of wildlife and narcotic drugs and to strengthen cooperation on the international border management.”

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