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One year on: Russia, Ukraine and the UK’s commitment to crackdown on kleptocracy and SLAPPs

Article by Susan Coughtrie

February 24, 2023

One year on: Russia, Ukraine and the UK’s commitment to crackdown on kleptocracy and SLAPPs

The Russian invasion into Ukraine provoked a range of responses from the UK Government, including a sudden vigour to clamp down on Russian influence and kleptocracy. These were far from new issues of concern. In its ‘Russia Report’, published in July 2020, the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee damningly concluded that “Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’.” 


The following year, journalist Catherine Belton and her publisher HarperCollins faced a ‘legal pile on’ in relation to her book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West. An eye opening account of how Russian kleptocracy had developed and spread, the legal cases against the book ended up raising the profile of another phenomenon – SLAPPs. ‘Strategic lawsuits against public participation’ are abusive legal actions taken, or threatened, to harass and intimidate those speaking out in the public interest. 


By the invasion last February, these cases had been settled, but not before HarperCollins had spent £1.5 million defending them. By March 2022, all the claimants – four Russian oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, and a state owned Russian oil company – were sanctioned. Stories about them suddenly flooded into the public domain, with Belton later noting that journalists have been “censoring themselves, particularly about the activities of Russian oligarchs, for a very long time.”


In July, the findings of a Ministry of Justice consultation found that SLAPPs “go beyond the parameters of ordinary litigation and pose a threat to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.” The Government committed to legislative reform, the fruits of which we have yet to see. This delay was put sharply in the spotlight this January, after it was revealed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch currently waging war in Ukraine as the head of the Wagner Group, had been granted licences by the UK Treasury to evade pre-existing sanctions and sue Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, in London last year. 


While the focus has been on Russia, it is the UK financial and legal systems that have been misused. It’s the UK’s inaction over years that has allowed kleptocracy to flourish, emboldening authoritarian regimes that rely on corruption to entrench their power, abuse their own citizens and now those of other nations. SLAPPs delay or suppress the release of information about wrongdoing, both foreign and domestic, preventing redress. The UK needs to take decisive action to break this cycle once and for all. 


Susan Coughtrie, co-chairs the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, an informal working group established in January 2021, which comprises a number of civil society organisations, lawyers, academics and researchers. In November 2022, the Coalition published a model UK Anti-SLAPP Law, developed with support of expert media lawyers, which has been widely endorsed by media and civil society.

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