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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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Malaysian investigators uncover record haul of nearly 30 tonnes of pangolins at two illicit plants

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record haul of nearly 30 tonnes of pangolins

Police in Malaysia have seized over 27 tonnes of pangolins and their body parts from traffickers running two illicit plants dedicated to the processing of the critically-endangered animal, according to wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.

Acting after receiving intelligence, investigators first raided one facility in the Sabah state capital of Kota Kinabalu on 7 February, before later swooping on a warehouse in Tamparuli, nearly 22 miles away from the city.

The massive haul, which is thought to be the largest ever recovered in the country, is estimated to have been worth some 8.4 million ringgit ($2 million) on the black market.

In an operation that exposed the role Sabah plays in the global illegal trade in pangolin parts, police involved in the raids recovered 1,800 boxes containing frozen pangolins, 572 individual frozen pangolins in six freezers, 61 live pangolins in cages and in the boot of a car, and 361kgs of pangolin scales.

Police also recovered two bear paws and the carcasses of four flying foxes.

A 35-year-old man, thought to be a manager of one of the sites, was arrested following the raids, Traffic said, citing police sources.

The anti-trafficking organisation said it hoped the raids would help lead investigators to the organised criminal syndicates behind both the domestic and international illicit trade in pangolin parts.

Pangolins, which are thought to be the most trafficked mammal on the planet, are estimated to make up around a fifth of the world’s illicit trade in wildlife.

The animals’ scales are in high demand in many Asian countries, where they are used in a range of traditional medicine, while their meat is considered a delicacy in China and other Asian nations.

Many people across Asia mistakenly believe that pangolin body parts contain properties that can cure a number of ailments ranging from hangovers to cancer, despite there being no evidence whatsoever that this is the case.

Commenting on the success of the operation, Traffic’s Southeast Asia Director Kanitha Krishnasamy said: “Detecting large volumes of pangolin smuggling is no easy feat and Sabah authorities are congratulated for pursuing and taking down this smuggling operation

“It is hoped that comprehensive investigations can lead to unmasking the syndicate and networks operating from the state and beyond.”

The raids come ahead of this Saturday’s World Pangolin Day, which is intended to raise awareness of how heavily the animal is trafficked.

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Industry body unveils new effort to protect European advertisers from online pirated content

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protect European advertisers from online pirated content

An anti-piracy group has announced a new initiative that is intended to help European brands protect themselves from being associated with pirated content.

Advertising industry organisation the Trustworthy Accountability Group (Tag) yesterday announced Project Brand Integrity, which is intended to alert companies and their advertising agencies when their marketing material has appeared alongside pirated material online.

The new initiative, which is modelled on a similar effort launched in the US that is said to have reduced the number of impressions linked to pirated content by more than 90% over two years, will be operated by Tag in partnership with advertising auditing firm White Bullet, which will monitor and document ads on infringing sites.

After scanning ad-supported infringing sites serving markets in Europe, White Bullet’s technology will identify any ads that appear alongside pirated content, before forwarding that information to Tag, which will contact the advertiser and/or its agency so they can take remedial action.

Mike Zaneis, CEO of Tag, commented: “If you are a brand advertiser, the skull-and-crossbones isn’t just a pirate movie trope. It accurately reflects the toxic danger of associating your brand with stolen content and criminal activities on pirate sites.

“Project Brand Integrity will serve as an early warning system for advertisers and their agencies, so we can alert them when their ads have run near stolen content and help them implement effective safeguards to prevent it from happening again.

“We are delighted to work with White Bullet to jointly enable this program, while advancing the European Commission’s important work in this area.”

The new project forms part of wider drive by major advertisers and their partners to ensure online marketing material does not appear alongside content that could damage brand reputation.

Over recent years, major brands including Unilever, Mars and Verizon have pulled their ads from major video streaming platforms such as YouTube over worries that they were appearing alongside child sexual abuse material, violent drill rap videos and content relating to religious extremism.

Puling its material from various platforms over fears its ads were being shown alongside inappropriate content featuring children in November 2017, Mars said: “We have taken the decision to immediately suspend all our online advertising on YouTube and Google globally.

“Until we have confidence that appropriate safeguards are in place, we will not advertise on YouTube and Google.”

YouTube and Google have since boosted their efforts to take down or demonetise inappropriate or questionable content through fear of alienating advertisers.

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Romanian sex trafficking brothers who modified penises with metal balls to cause more pain to rape victims jailed for 108 years

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Romanian sex trafficking brothers

Two Romanian brothers who trafficked vulnerable young women into Spain and forced them into prostitution have been jailed for a total of 108 years after a court heard they inserted metal balls into their penises in a bid to cause maximum pain to their rape victims.

Cristian and Sebastián Sandulache, who were said to have made as much as €11,000 ($12,448) a night by forcing their victims to sell sex, were sentenced to 55 and 53 years respectively by a Spanish court last month.

Despite the huge amount of money the brothers and their fellow gang members were able to rake in, their victims were paid only around €200 a fortnight after being told they must work off the debt they had built up travelling to Spain.

As well as modifying their penises to cause the women they trafficked as much pain as possible, prosecutors told the court the sadistic siblings sliced one woman’s arm off with a samurai sword, and forced others to eat euro banknotes when they failed to bring in enough money while prostituting themselves.

After forcing the women to wash down the notes with water, the brothers are said to have told them they would be made to eat coins should they fail to make sufficient money in the future.

The pair made victims sell their bodies at a brothel in the northwest town of Oviedo after luring them from their home country of Romania with false promises of well-paid legitimate work.

Once the women arrived in Spain, the brothers stripped them of their travel documents and mobile phones, before beating and raping them and forcing them to work as prostitutes.

While serving a previous prison sentence, the brothers sliced holes in their own penises and inserted metal balls into the holes as part of a bid to make sex more pleasurable for themselves and more painful for their partners, the court was told.

As well as being handed lengthy jail terms, the brothers were also ordered to pay their victims large amounts of compensation.

The pair’s lawyers said they both intend to appeal the length of their sentences, having initially denied all of the charges against them, maintaining that the women who accused them of wrongdoing were lying, and were only interested in extracting compensation from them.

If they had been convicted of all the charges they faced, the brothers could have been handed a total of 600 years behind bars.

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