Ireland is a potential “weak link” and “soft touch” for Russian money, according to the anti-corruption campaigner who has helped change laws in 34 countries to target human rights abuses.
US-born financier and political activist Bill Browder, who has campaigned for 12 years for countries to introduce “Magnitsky” legislation allowing them to sanction people involved in human rights abuses or corruption, is pushing Ireland to introduce its own legislation.
Mr Browder, once Russia’s largest foreign investor, has lobbied globally for the changes in his fight for justice for his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who exposed wide-ranging corruption by Russian state officials and was later arrested, tortured and killed in a Russian prison in 2009.
Ahead of testifying at the Oireachtas justice committee yesterday, Mr Browder told The Irish Times that while Europe has adopted an EU Magnitsky Act, EU foreign policy meant that countries such as Hungary can block sanctions being imposed in Ireland. The Irish Government has “outsourced” its sovereignty in taking its own action, he said.
“Ireland is potentially a weak link because it doesn’t have its own sovereignty over dealing with this issue. Ireland can’t make a unilateral decision,” he said.
Mr Browder said the people who killed Sergei Magnitsky can “freely travel to Ireland, keep their money in Irish banks, buy property in Ireland with no consequence”.
“The way to fix it is very simply for Ireland to have its own Magnitsky Act,” he said.
He expressed shock that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe met Greg Barker, a Conservative peer, at Government Buildings in March to discuss his planned takeover of the Aughinish Alumina refinery in Limerick to protect it against Russian sanctions.
Lord Barker had until recently been chairman of EN+ Group, Aughinish Alumina’s Moscow parent company, which is majority-owned by Oleg Deripaska, a close associate of Vladimir Putin. Three years ago, Lord Barker negotiated the lifting of US sanctions on En+ and Deripaska.
Mr Browder said the meeting was “unbelievable” and “never should have happened”.
“I am shocked and I think that Irish people should be shocked and I think that there should be backlash about that because everything should be done at total arm’s length,” he said. “There should be no backdoor meetings effectively with Russian oligarchs.”
Yesterday Mr Varadkar defended the meeting, saying that neither Aughinish Alumina or its parent were subject to EU sanctions and it was not a majority-owned Russian company.
He told reporters the Government was applying the EU sanctions “by letter and spirit” and that Aughinish Alumina was a “very significant employer in the west”.
At the Oireachtas hearing, the Criminal Assets Bureau pointed out difficulties with the proposed Proceeds of Crime (Gross Human Rights Abuses) Bill 2020, which would effectively be an Irish version of the Magnitsky law.
CAB said the Proceeds of Crime Acts are taking action against property rather than individuals and that the new legislation “presupposes the existence of an identifiable category of assets” to be confiscated that are acquired in connection with human rights abuses when, in the absence of any clear examples, the bureau had “significant doubt as whether such a category of asset exists”.
Even if the assets did exist, the challenge of proving criminality in an uncooperative country “would likely render the chances of Ireland successfully confiscating such assets insurmountable”.