Leading campaigner urges UK to target wealth of Kazakhstani elite

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One of the architects of the UK’s updated sanctions legislation has called for the government and crime agencies to target the wealth of the Kazakhstani elite following the deaths of at least 164 people during unrest.

Bill Browder, an American investor turned campaigner, said the British government could use anti-corruption legislation to target the rulers of Kazakhstan on the grounds of human rights abuses.

“It could be imposed on Kazakhstan very easily, and it should be used much more broadly than it is currently being used,” he told British MPs on Wednesday.

A report published last month by the thinktank Chatham House identified 34 UK properties bought by the Kazakh ruling elite from 1998 to 2002 at a cost of about £530m. Pressure is building on the government to use the tools at its disposal, including sanctions, property ownership registers and legal action to curb flows of money from Kazakhstan and other autocratic regimes.

Protests over fuel prices in Kazakhstan developed last week into armed battles for control of vital infrastructure such as the airport in Almaty, the financial capital. The protests sparked a violent crackdown as well as external military intervention backed by Russia.

Browder was speaking at an event held remotely by MPs on the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption and responsible tax alongside MPs including Labour’s Dame Margaret Hodge and the Conservatives’ Andrew Mitchell. All three played a large role in the UK’s introduction of legislation in 2017 giving crime agencies the power to target unexplained wealth.

Browder was also instrumental in ensuring gross human rights violations were included in the offences covered by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. The legislation was inspired by Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and colleague of Browder who was killed in a Moscow prison after exposing an alleged fraud involving Kremlin officials.

Both Hodge and Browder criticised the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), saying it has not done enough to target the illicit wealth of dictators and kleptocrats, or their families. The NCA’s approach was “lazy”, going after easy prosecutions rather than bigger targets, Browder said. An NCA spokesperson strongly denied this was the case.

Hodge said the UK was failing to pursue sanctions against members of the Kazakh elite in part because of the NCA’s failure in 2020 to freeze the assets of the daughter and grandson of a former president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev officially stepped down in 2019, but he is widely seen to wield significant influence over the Kazakh government, although that could change following the unrest.

On the failure to issue sanctions against Kazakh leaders, Hodge said: “I think they’re running scared because they lost the unexplained wealth order but of course they should use the sanctions regime against them. It’s outrageous.”

MPs and campaigners have called for increased funding of crime agencies as well as other measures such as proper checks by the UK’s Companies House register and a register of beneficial ownership of property. Hodge told the Guardian that the UK’s efforts to prevent kleptocrats stashing wealth in the UK could fund themselves if the NCA were allowed to “take a slice of frozen assets to cover their costs”. She also said there should be a cost cap for agencies when prosecuting deep-pocketed wrongdoers in court.

The NCA spokesperson said: “Tackling the flow of illicit finance into the UK is a top priority for the National Crime Agency. We will continue to use all the legislation at our disposal to pursue suspected illicit finance, and bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites.”

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