British Justice System and International Corruption Cases

– in the House of Commons am 5:04 pm ar 28 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Mohindra.)

5.6 pm

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

This is the third debate on oligarchs and lawfare that I have led in the past two years. It is unfortunate that it is necessary to return once again to this matter, but it is just as crucial as ever.

In the last three decades, London has been swamped by a tidal wave of money that has poured in from Russia, other ex-Soviet states, China, and other corrupt regimes around the world. Cash-hungry charities, universities and political parties have gladly accepted that money, and have looked at those deep-pocketed oligarchs with green-eyed gullibility. All have shown an excessive willingness to overlook the misbehaviour of the people supplying the money.

My previous debate on this subject was in response to the bullying of a former Member of this place, Charlotte Leslie, by someone who has sought to take advantage of this cash-for-access attitude: Mohamed Amersi. Over the past decade, Amersi has set out to purchase a reputation in the British establishment, seeking to be known as an upright citizen and philanthropist. He even has a name for it: “access capitalism.” However, his fame has turned to notoriety, as more and more worrying information has come to light about his past. He trained his sights on Ms Leslie because of her proper exercise of due diligence in regard to him. That came after he attempted to take control of the Conservative Middle East Council, which Ms Leslie runs, and then in turn sought to set up his own rival organisation.

Amersi accused Ms Leslie of libel for what she had said about him, in an excessively long, drawn-out and expensive legal case that also encompassed a wrongful claim of a breach of data protection rules. But his campaign against her went far beyond the case itself; he set out to destroy her reputation. There were lies that she sexually blackmailed men; the collection of intimate details about her family; physical intimidation; threatening letters sent by notorious legal firm Carter-Ruck to journalists and MPs, including myself, claiming that Ms Leslie consorted with sanctioned individuals; and an obsessive, misogynistic and ultimately defamatory hate campaign conducted on social media by Amersi himself.

Ms Leslie has at last been vindicated in court, with Mr Justice Nicklin noting Amersi’s

“exorbitant approach to the litigation”,

and the fact that

“Subjecting a person to successive civil claims can be a hallmark of abusive conduct”.

Amersi clearly hoped that he could break Ms Leslie’s resolve and force her to concede through bullying, intimidation and the threat of financial ruin. He failed. He also sought to intimidate a current Member of this place, Dame Margaret Hodge, who had likewise tried to shed light on his dealings.

Thanks to those two people and the relentless work of journalists such as Tom Burgis, upon whose new book “Cuckooland” I will draw today, we know that Amersi is deeply immersed in a twilight world of backroom bribes, creative accountancy, and a whole lot of smoke and mirrors. That is why he was so desperate to suppress Ms Leslie’s claims: he did not want to be exposed and have his carefully crafted public image—that of a savvy entrepreneur and generous philanthropist—shredded. With that in mind, a closer look at his past is warranted.

The names of the regimes that Amersi has aided, abetted and enriched make for a shopping list of dictatorships and autocracies. First, let us look at Russia—as with so many tales of corruption and kleptocracy, the story starts in Russia. In 2005, Amersi was an adviser in a deal with the Danish lawyer and businessman Jeffrey Galmond. Galmond claimed to own a large swathe of the Russian telecoms market. In reality, though, he was said to be a frontman for the Russian telecoms Minister and Putin ally Leonid Reiman, who used Galmond to exercise his control over the sector. That was confirmed by a Swiss arbitration tribunal in 2006, which noted that Reiman arranged deals to “misappropriate” Russian state assets “for his personal enrichment”. It seems likely that Amersi’s payment for the deal—$4 million—came from the proceeds of crime against the Russian people, funnelled via Galmond.

In an affidavit issued by Galmond the year before the deal Amersi advised on, Galmond acknowledged the existence of allegations about his relationship with Reiman. We know that Amersi would have had a copy of that affidavit, which surely should have raised some questions in his mind, yet the deal went ahead and Amersi got his $4 million. It was a straightforward case of a fixer being rewarded for facilitating a deal. Of course, Amersi denies knowing the truth about Galmond, but we have to ask ourselves how ignorant someone working on such deals could really have been. It had been clear for years that the post-Soviet regime in Russia was a kleptocracy. Indeed, Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in 2006 because he had been investigating post-Soviet corruption.

However, Russia is not the only place of interest. I also want to focus on a few places where Amersi has been active: Uzbekistan, Nepal and Kazakhstan. In those places, Amersi worked as a representative of TeliaSonera, a large Swedish telecoms firm. His pay was an astonishing £19,000 a day. That gives us an idea of what TeliaSonera thought he brought to the company, but the question has to be asked: what on earth could Amersi possibly bring to the table to justify a salary of nearly £7 million a year?

In Uzbekistan, the deal Amersi was involved in led to a finding of criminal activity. In essence, TeliaSonera—the company Amersi worked for—agreed to buy a company controlled by the President of Uzbekistan’s daughter for a hugely inflated price in order to gain access to the Uzbek market. That company and its Uzbek subsidiary later admitted that it had paid

“more than $331 million in bribes to an Uzbek official”.

That is corruption 101: paying a bribe by vastly overpaying in a business deal that ultimately profits members of a corrupt regime. The American Department of Justice confirmed that TeliaSonera

“corruptly built a lucrative telecommunications business in Uzbekistan, using bribe payments wired around the world through accounts here in New York City.”

As a result of all this, various judicial authorities ended up imposing fines of nearly $1 billion on TeliaSonera in 2017. Amersi pleads ignorance—if we believe his version of events, he had no idea that TeliaSonera was crafting a massive bung for a corrupt post-Soviet regime. However, Amersi knew that the Uzbek businessman with whom TeliaSonera was dealing ran a telecoms company that, according to a memo that Amersi had seen, was controlled by affiliates of the Uzbek President’s daughter. That will be something of a theme in these cases: Amersi saying that he could not possibly have known, but then being exposed by the documentary evidence. The pattern is that of a specialist in shady dealing, and it was for that specialism that TeliaSonera was paying him nearly £7 million a year.

Amersi’s work for TeliaSonera extended to Nepal, where he helped that company gain access to the telecoms market. At the time, Nepal was controlled by a corrupt Maoist regime. In this sphere, Amersi facilitated a deal with Nepalese business tycoon Ajeya Raj Sumargi, which involved many millions of dollars finding its way to Sumargi. However, it was not really Sumargi whose friendship TeliaSonera sought; it was that of the corrupt Maoist Government. That much is clear from a 2013 report commissioned by TeliaSonera and carried out by private intelligence specialists Control Risks, which notes that its sources believed Sumargi

“handles and invests unaccounted money for various Maoist leaders.”

Control Risks further reported that Sumargi’s relationship with leading Nepalese politician, and now Prime Minister, Prachanda

“extends beyond the realms of business”.

It appears Sumargi even bought Prachanda a house in his sister-in-law’s name. The report also noted existing allegations of bribery and corruption against Sumargi, and claims of

“unethical or illegal business practices”.

Even after this report, Amersi urged TeliaSonera to maintain its relationship with Sumargi, which it did to the tune of millions of dollars.

Yet another example of this pattern is found in Kazakhstan, where Amersi facilitated a large questionable business deal to the benefit of a banker accused of being a front for the corrupt Kazakh regime. Both TeliaSonera and Amersi were handsomely rewarded for this. Once again, Amersi will claim he could not possibly have known of this corruption, but this is a clear pattern of behaviour. This is a man who knew exactly what he was doing.

As I have said, in all these cases Amersi maintains his innocence. In fact, he told Mr Burgis that he would only deem a potential business partner to be corrupt if there was 100% proof—a higher bar, of course, than that of a criminal court, and a bar rarely reached, but never reached if you always look the other way.

A report by the highly respected legal firm Norton Rose Fulbright, commissioned by TeliaSonera in the wake of its corruption scandal, noted that the

“nature of the services and the relationships provided” by Amersi were

“not transparent, it appears often deliberately so.”

It stated that, in his dealings with TeliaSonera, Amersi

“was taking no obvious risk”,

and did not have the kind of overheads associated with an investment bank, yet was being paid like one. Throughout the report, Amersi was referred to as Mr “XY”, if Members care to read it. The report noted that in some cases he was apparently paid twice for providing the same service, at one point receiving a fee of $30 million. It also highlighted back-to-back payment arrangements—a classic laundering exercise—whereby TeliaSonera would pay his company, and his company would then pay the third party in question the same amount.

I would like to turn to Amersi’s relationship with the British legal system, which is the core of this. Much has been said about this in the past, and I do not want to repeat what I and others have said in this House, but there is one aspect we must focus on, and it relates to Amersi’s legal case against Charlotte Leslie. That was one of the key strategic lawsuits against public participation that we talked about when we raised the SLAPPs campaign back in January 2022.

In a hearing in this case in June last year, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Nicklin, asked both sides to state what costs they had incurred in fighting the case to that point. Ms Leslie’s team provided the information, but Mr Amersi’s lawyers failed or refused to do so. This was rather odd: as Justice Nicklin pointed out, Amersi’s lawyers were declining to provide information that was already in the public domain. As he put it:

“Would you help me with how you can maintain a claim of confidentiality when you have given an interview to a newspaper in which you have told the newspaper how much your costs are?”

That interview from June 2021 was with Tom Burgis and published in the Financial Times.

The lawyers’ response in court was to say that Burgis’s reporting was inaccurate and misrepresented the truth: the figure quoted by Burgis—£300,000—was wrong, and Amersi had never said it. In fact, however, the transcript of the interview shows exactly what he said:

“£260,000 worth of costs, right? Nearly £300,000 now, after the DPA”—

Data Protection Act

“filings’ against Ms Leslie.”

Amersi went on to confirm the £300,000 figure in an email to the Private Eye journalist Richard Brooks in 2021, and his lawyers—from the notorious firm Carter-Ruck—did the same in a threatening letter they sent to the Financial Times in 2022. Yet in court, Amersi’s lawyers told Mr Justice Nicklin that the costs had

“not been revealed to Mr Burgis”,

which is a lie. Amersi claimed in a sworn witness statement that he

“did not say that my legal costs were approaching £300,000”,

which is also a lie. In short, Burgis’s reporting was correct, and Amersi and his lawyers knew that when they told the court it was not. I am not a lawyer, but that would appear to me to be perjury.

A picture emerges of an attempt to avoid justice by obscuring the truth. Indeed, it is not only the court system that Mr Amersi has sought to bend his will; he has attempted to buy his way into the British establishment and, worryingly, he has had some success. Amersi has managed to recast himself as a philanthropist and a benefactor, rather than the shady political fixer for corrupt politicians that he really is. He has donated to charities, academic institutions and the Conservative party, and apparently he now intends to donate to Labour. Clearly, he will do whatever he can to get influence.

The British establishment is clearly vulnerable. There is a green-eyed gullibility at the top of our society, with institutions happy to hoover up cash without asking questions. I am afraid that the origin of that vulnerability dates back to the Blair years, when a tendency to overlook inconvenient truths about wealthy donors became embedded, but it has to be said that it did not improve with subsequent Governments either. Indeed, the sad truth is that Amersi is just one of many people who take advantage of our freedoms to enrich themselves and to dodge accountability.

I welcome that the action the Government have taken to make it harder for oligarchs and their enablers to bend our justice system to their will, but there is much more work to be done to ensure that British justice is the enemy of these corrupt individuals, and not a tool for achieving their wicked ends. The Government are properly starting to change the law on SLAPPs, but to deal with current misbehaviour, we need to enforce the laws that already exist to protect ordinary British citizens. There must also be more scrutiny of such people’s attempts to buy their way to a good reputation.

Although I have set out to detail an accurate account of Amersi’s behaviour based on extensive documentation, it is for the appropriate legal bodies to come to a decision on his innocence or guilt. However, we know that Amersi facilitated corrupt deals. The repeat nature of the murky practices involved is striking, and he put Charlotte Leslie through years of persecution and torture for her due diligence, in what may have amounted—in my view, it did—to criminal harassment.

The Bribery Act 2010 is clear that it is an offence for a British citizen to bribe a foreign public official, no matter where in the world that action takes place. Mr Amersi is a British citizen, and he must obey British law. His dealings in the former Soviet Union and Nepal are therefore surely a matter for the National Crime Agency to consider. Furthermore, the Metropolitan police must now consider whether the actions against Charlotte Leslie constitute criminal harassment, and the judiciary should consider the question of perjury that I outlined a moment or two ago. I will send copies of the Hansard for today’s debate to all those agencies. I know that the Solicitors Regulation Authority is already reviewing a complaint about the conduct of Carter-Ruck in these matters.

The very due diligence that Ms Leslie has been attacked for is exactly what we need when it comes to people like Amersi. We must ensure that it happens, and that it is not prevented by the kind of bullying deployed by Mr Amersi. All this is a test case for how we handle corruption and cronyism in our country. It is imperative we meet that test if London is not to become a global capital for sleaze.

Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 5:23, 28 Chwefror 2024

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis for having secured it. He has been an exemplary advocate on the challenges that corruption poses to the rule of law and freedom of speech.

My right hon. Friend has raised some serious issues. As he will know, investigations are conducted independently of His Majesty’s Government, and we are unable to speculate or comment specifically on any individual allegations. This debate engages issues of fundamental importance to our democracy and values. We must confront the reality that, while our justice system stands as a beacon of fairness and equality for many, the corrosive effects of corruption can undermine justice here and around the world. In acknowledging that challenge, we affirm our commitment to uphold the principles of justice and to ensure that the rule of law remains steadfast. Corruption can threaten our national security and prosperity through a slow erosion of trust in institutions at home and overseas. Development is slowed when poorer nations have their resources drained away, which hampers their ability to mobilise revenue and facilitate growth and investment while undermining wider efforts to reduce poverty.

At its most extreme, corruption can fuel state capture, where private interests trump the public interest as corrupt actors take over the state institutions and decision-making processes to serve their own agendas. While instances of corruption may be isolated, their impact reverberates far beyond the confines of individual cases, undermining public trust and confidence in the legal system as a whole.

The British justice system has in recent years seen the rise of strategic litigation against public participation, which has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and civic engagement, deterring individuals and organisations from exercising their right to free speech for fear of legal reprisal. We know that free speech is critical in the fight against corruption, for it enables truth telling where corrupt actors rely on precisely the opposite. The climate of fear and self-censorship that SLAPPs create leads to stifled public debate, undermining the robust exchange that we hold as essential.

Fortunately, we can point to progress in countering SLAPPs in this jurisdiction. We were the first jurisdiction to legislate at the national level to combat SLAPPs relating to economic crime in last year’s Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act. Work is also under way to ensure that new procedural rules are designed to give the legislation effect, such that SLAPPs defendants have a fair fight when confronted with abusive threats or proceedings.

Just last week, the Government were proud to announce their support for a private Member’s Bill on SLAPPs introduced by Wayne David, whom I congratulate on his commitment to challenging abusive litigation that undermines British justice. The Bill follows the approach set out in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, which as hon. Members know, introduces new defining characteristics in statute to empower judges tasked with identifying these cases, an early dismissal mechanism that cuts short cases with improper purposes at their heart, and a costs protection regime that will provide defendants with clarity around the costs risk they are exposed to when responding to SLAPP threats. The Bill passed its Second Reading, which is an essential step in legislating comprehensively against SLAPPs, no matter their subject matter or the cause of action in question.

I am pleased to note the support that we have received from stakeholders across media, law, civil society and both Houses of Parliament. It is a credit to our country that so many are prepared to come together to tackle this issue across the political spectrum. However, combating corruption and preserving access to justice requires more than just legislative solutions. It demands a cultural shift that places ethics and integrity at the forefront of our justice system.

We are fortunate in this country to have independent regulators that uphold the highest professional standards. The Solicitors Regulation Authority took swift action by launching a thematic review of SLAPP activity and published a warning notice early on when the issue came to light. That encouraged renewed engagement, with guidance on aggressive correspondence and the notorious letters often issued at the start of SLAPP claims: those marked “confidential” or “without prejudice”. Such labels are designed to intimidate people who may not have immediate access to legal advice, such that they withdraw from intended publications.

We are working together across Government to champion a co-ordinated approach to SLAPPs. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport leads the SLAPPs taskforce, which brings together actors in the media freedom space to propose non-legislative measures to stamp out SLAPPs. The taskforce is making progress across workstreams that seek to raise awareness and develop regulatory responses on the issue, benefiting from the depth of expertise among the media and law professionals taking part.

Aside from abusive lawsuits, let me address the Government efforts to combat corruption in the broadest sense. It is an undoubted benefit that the UK is an open economy with one of the world’s major financial centres in the City of London. That means that we need strong defences to prevent bribery and corruption here and abroad. The Government took decisive action on bribery by modernising UK criminal law through the Bribery Act reforms in 2010. That legislation set the international gold standard for anti-bribery and corruption laws, and was found to be an “exemplary piece of legislation” by the other place following post-legislative scrutiny.

In the past fortnight, the Serious Fraud Office has brought charges against two individuals for alleged bribery in the oil and gas sector in the middle east. The charges build on a number of critical enforcement milestones that have been met in recent years, including our largest ever financial penalties for bribery following the conviction of Glencore, which was ordered to pay £280 million in 2022.

I am proud of all that is being done to keep corruption at bay. Whether through action against illicit finance or legislation that protects public participation in the public interest, we must continue this work together to ensure that corruption finds no home in our jurisdiction.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.