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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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Preference for fentanyl highest among young, white opioid users in US, study finds

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preference for fentanyl highest among young, white opioid users

US opioid users who prefer the drugs they take to contain fentanyl are more likely to be young, white addicts who consume illicit substances on a daily basis, according to study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Researchers from the institution polled more than 300 opioid users in three US states, discovering that 27% of respondents expressed a preference for their opioids to contain fentanyl, which is said to be as many as 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

According to the results of the survey, the median age of those who prefer their opioids to contain fentanyl was 38, which compared to 45 for those who would rather their drugs did not.

Ethnically, some 59% of those who prefer their drugs to contain fentanyl identified as being non-Hispanic white, compared to only 29% who like their opioids to be fentanyl-free.

In a statement, study author Susan Sherman said: “These findings will help us think about how best to target interventions to prevent opioid overdoses.

“Preference for fentanyl for a minority of participants likely reflects the fact that in their street opioid markets, fentanyl-containing products are all they’ve known and used.”

In March, data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that overdose deaths linked to the consumption of fentanyl in the US were rising fastest among African Americans.

The statistics showed that while non-Hispanic white people continued to account for most overdose deaths linked to the drug, fatalities associated with fentanyl were rising fastest among non-Hispanic black users.

Separately, American businessman Stephen Schwarzman this week told CBNC that Beijing officials are working to stop shipments of fentanyl from leaving China, where illicit factories produce large quantities of the synthetic opioid to sell into countries such as the US.

“There’s a huge reorganisation going on in China regarding fentanyl to try to shut it down,” Schwarzman said after a trip to the country.

“And if what [officials there told me] is true, you will see this really going down quickly.”

The Trump administration has repeatedly accused China of failing to do enough to prevent shipments of fentanyl from being exported from within its borders to the US.

Last month, Beijing hit back by claiming the US was attempting to pass the blame for its spiralling opioid crisis, urging the White House to examine the domestic drivers of the epidemic.

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EU customs authorities saw fake goods seizures soar last year after counterfeiters sent more parcels through post

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EU customs authorities saw fake good seizures soar

Seizure of fake goods imported into the European Union rose last year as customs agencies across the 28-natiom bloc saw a marked increase in counterfeit items being smuggled into member states in small parcels in express and postal traffic, according to new figures released by the European Commission.

In 2018, the number of consignments intercepted in EU nations rose from 57,433 during the previous year to 69,354, although the total number of induvial fake items taken out of circulation by member state customs workers decreased compared to previous years.

A total of nearly 27 million bogus articles with an estimated street value of almost €740 million ($813 million) were seized in member states over the 12-month period.

Counterfeit tobacco products were the most seized item in the EU in 2018, accounting for 15% of all fake products intercepted.

These were followed closely by toys (14%), packaging material (9%), labels, tags and stickers (9%) and clothing (8%).

Household items such as bathing and beauty products, pharmaceuticals, toys, and electrical household goods accounted for nearly 37% of the total number of intercepted items, the majority of which had come from China.

North Macedonia was found to be the source of the highest number of counterfeit alcoholic beverages, while the leading source of other beverages, perfumes and cosmetics was Turkey.

Away from mainland China, a high number of counterfeit watches, smartphones and accessories, ink cartridges and toners, CDs/DVDs, labels, tags and stickers seized in the EU in 2018 had been imported from Hong Kong, while the main source of bogus computer equipment was India.

Elsewhere, Cambodia was the leading source of counterfeit cigarettes, while the highest amount of fake packaging material came from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In a statement, EU Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs Pierre Moscovici said: “Customs officers across the EU have seen success in tracking down and seizing counterfeit goods that are often dangerous for consumers.

“Their job is made even more difficult by the rise in small packages entering the EU through online sales.

“Protecting the integrity of our Single Market and Customs Union, and effective enforcement of intellectual property rights in the international supply chain are also priorities. We need to continue stepping up the efforts against counterfeiting and piracy.”

In March, a report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the EU’s Intellectual Property Office revealed that counterfeit products account for 3.3% of all global trade.

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Spanish and French police break up major child abduction and people smuggling network

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child abduction and people smuggling network

A Europol-backed operation involving police officers from Spain and France has resulted in the arrest of 29 suspected members of a human trafficking network that incited children to abscond from protection centres in Spain and travel to western Europe.

The gang, which is also said to have been involved in the smuggling of drugs, livestock and illicit tobacco, used Algerian, Malian, Moroccan and Syrian recruiters to target both adult and child migrants from their own countries.

Once recruited, the migrants were trafficked from the Spanish port city of Almería to France on buses owned by businesses based in France, Morocco and Spain.

The contraband was hidden in specially-constructed hidden compartments that had been built into the vehicles in order to avoid the attention of law enforcement agents.

Of the 26 suspects arrested, 26 were detained in Spain, and three in France.

Eleven of those held were remanded in custody.

As well as the 29 arrests, the operation also resulted in the confiscation of €33,000 ($36,270) in cash, various documents, computer equipment, more than 200kgs of cannabis, a vehicle and a trailer, all of which were seized during searches of 14 properties.

The gang’s recruiters are said to have approached migrants who had recently arrived in Almeria having entered Spain illegally, offering to take them by bus to France or Brussels for three times more than a regular passenger would be charged.

The Malian recruiters are said to have specialised in targeting unaccompanied migrant children at a protection centre in Almeria, encouraging the minors to use violence against social workers in order to escape.

According to Spanish police, the gang paid a local hotel owner in Almeria to provide accommodation to migrants while they waited to be herded onto buses, with many being forced to sleep in overcrowded rooms.

Police launched an investigation into the network behind the plot following the arrest of a Spanish national in France who was caught driving a bus carrying 22 irregular migrants, six of whom were children.

The probe led to the discovery of a major criminal network that was allegedly headed up a Moroccan nation who owned a bus company.

In a statement, Europol said: “Europol supported the operation with coordination, analysis and information exchange.

“Europol financed the organisation of an operational meeting and provided on-the-sport operational support during the action day with the deployment of two analysts in Spain and one in France to support the action in the field.”

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