The Government is under pressure to publish the names of Russians suspected of being linked to targeted assassinations amid increasing concerns that London is turning into a playground for mobsters and hit squads.
The calls come following the recent attempted murder of a prominent Russian banker who was due to testify in an upcoming murder trial and reports that a hit man sent to assassinate a prominent Chechen dissident leader has successfully fought off a deportation bid.
Former Europe minister Dennis MacShane believes the situation has become so critical that publicly outing the names of known Russians linked to political killings would send a powerful signal that such violence will not be tolerated on British streets.
“It is only by naming publicly the Russian security apparatus officials, in office or retired and working in the para-security services that Britain can send a message ahead of the Olympic Games that our main city is not ‘Londongrad’ and Russian killers should stay away and stop harassing British businesses,” the MP told The Independent. “Every Russian I meet tells me that private protests have no impact on the Kremlin. Britain has to take a lead and go public with naming names as that is one message the Russian security-business state which likes owning property here, likes sending its children to private schools, and needs City of London lawyers to write contracts actually understands.”
Although Britain has previously named officials from countries like Zimbabwe and Belarus who are unwelcome in the UK, the Government has been comparatively reluctant to take a publicly confrontational approach towards Russians suspected of involvement in political or financial criminality.
Last month MPs – including three former foreign secretaries – passed a binding resolution in the House of Commons calling on Britain to publicly ban and freeze the assets of more than 60 Russian officials linked to the suspected murder of Sergei Magnitsky. The Moscow-based lawyer was hired by the British hedge fund Hermitage Capital to investigate a $230m tax fraud by a cabal of corrupt officials within Russia's powerful interior ministry. Days after naming the officials he was arrested by the same people he had accused and later died in prison after being beaten and having his medication withdrawn.
Foreign office minister David Lidington has said the Government is “carefully considering” the call by MPs but has so far resisted calls to bring in a public ban. Until now the British approach has been to place diplomatic pressure on Moscow to fully investigate Mr Magnitsky's death.
London's swelling Russian expat community – many of whom are openly critical of the Kremlin – have long expressed their concerns that the capital has become a playground for mobsters. But two recent events have caused particularly acute outrage.
Last week wealthy Russian banker German Gorbuntsov was left in a coma after he was shot five times at close range outside his luxury home in Canary Wharf. His lawyer said Gorbuntsov, who used to own four banks, had been days away from giving evidence to an investigation into the assassination attempt on a former business associate. Meanwhile reports have emerged that Mi5 uncovered a plot to assassinate the London-based Chechen dissident Akhmed Zakayev. The security services were so concerned that they advised the Home Office to deport the alleged hitman but he has so far successfully remained in the country following an ongoing legal challenge.
Bill Browder, the founder of Hermitage Capital who has since fled Russia and campaigned to have Mr Magnitsky's killers brought to justice, says death threats are all too common for Russian expats and those with business interests there who fall foul of powerful players. His attempts to prosecute Mr Magnitsky's killers have has led to regular death threats for him and his staff. A recording of one threat sent in July 2010, which can be listened to below, is filled with expletives and was made by someone using an electronic voice disguiser.
“Everyone knows that London is a place where Russians long to travel to or do business in,” he said. “We know that some of the people involved in the killing of Sergei previously travelled to London. Publicly banning those Russians who are involved in criminality is the one bit of leverage we have – we would be taking away something they covet."
Moscow has dimissed suggestion that London is being taken over by Russian mafia gangs as media hype. The embassy has previously stated that there have been no registered cases of murders of Russian citizens in Britain in the past five years whilst only six people with confirmed Russian citizenship are in UK jails.
However Mr MacShane warns that the recent attempted murder of Mr Gorbuntsov shows Britain shouldn't be complacent.
Sooner or later some innocent bystander will be caught in the crossfire and a British subject will be killed,” he said. “Naming and shaming the hit squads would send a huge and welcome signal internationally that the good people in Russia have our support, rather than the bad people who are counting on us to take a blind eye to their criminality.”