December 6, 2023

Business Visa

The Business Visa Is Mightier Than Sword

UK, US Lawmakers Call for Travel Ban on Russians’ ‘Enabler’ Lawyers

  • Lawmakers from the US and UK urged their governments to impose travel bans on lawyers who had represented oligarchs.
  • US Rep. Steve Cohen said “foreign enablers of Russian oligarchs” should not get US visas.
  • Liam Byrne MP told Insider the UK should “shut down the venomous ecosystem of oligarch enablers.”

The US and UK have been urged to impose travel bans on British lawyers whom lawmakers say have “enabled malign activities of Russian oligarchs.”

In a letter published Monday, Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, urged US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to withhold “the privilege of traveling to the United States” from individuals from some of the UK’s most recognisable law firms.

The congressman said “certain” lawyers from the UK were “among the worst such enablers”, blasting British libel laws and “the vast amount of blood money” in the UK’s financial system for having helped create “an ideal place for oligarchs to abuse the law to harass and intimidate” journalists and activists working to expose them.

Citing “abusive” lawsuits against the journalist Catherine Belton and her publisher HarperCollins, the journalist Scott Stedman, and the human-rights campaigner Bill Browder, Cohen called on Blinken to consider banning US visas for six lawyers. Not all of the six lawyers were accused of representing Russian oligarchs.

They are: 

  • Nigel Tait of Carter-Ruck, who Cohen said acted on behalf of the Kremlin oil champion Rosneft and the Russian oligarch Gennady Timchenko to stop investigative reporting.
  • John Kelly of Harbottle & Lewis, who Cohen said represented the oligarch Roman Abramovich in a lawsuit against Belton and HarperCollins.
  • Hugh Tomlinson, who Cohen said had represented Abramovich and the oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven against Belton and HarperCollins.
  • Geraldine Proudler of CMS, who Cohen said worked for Fridman and Aven in suits against HarperCollins, and worked for Maj. Pavel Karpov, a former official at the Russian Interior Ministry, in a suit against Browder.
  • Keith Schilling of Schillings, who represented the Malaysian businessman Jho Low, who is accused of embezzling billions of dollars from the Malaysian state investment fund 1MDB.
  • Shlomo Rechtschaffen, who is representing the businessman Walter Soriano — who Cohen said was an “enabler” of Abramovich and the oligarchs Oleg Deripaska and Dmitry Rybolovlev — in a case against Stedman.

“While the Biden administration and our allies have imposed sanctions on Russian oligarchs since the brutal full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the enablers of kleptocracy have remained untouched,” said Cohen. “The United States must crack down on both oligarchs and enablers to end the system of global corruption that made possible this horrific war.”

Liam Byrne, a Labour MP and former minister, told Insider he had written to UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to ask her to do the same, saying it was “absolutely vital” that the UK “shut down the venomous ecosystem of oligarch enablers like the law firms that worked to silence journalists”. 

“Corruption is at the root of every autocracy. But oligarchs don’t act alone. They act through their tentacles of lawyers, PR firms and wealth managers,” he said.

“That’s why I’ve written to the foreign secretary to ask her to back Rep, Steve Cohen’s proposals and issue travel bans on the named lawyers. And it’s why I’ll be working with colleagues to bring forward UK laws to match the powerful new Enablers Bill designed to take these networks down for good.”

In the letter, seen by Insider, Byrne told Truss: “As you will know from debates in the House, these same individuals have been named in our debates as individuals with long track records of working at the behest of the rich and powerful to sue journalists seeking to expose the truth.”

He urged her to ensure the UK “stays in lockstep” with the US. 

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is seen on the stand during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge

Roman Abramovich.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

The UK’s libel law system has increasingly become under the spotlight in recent months amid concerns it is being misused by oligarchs and others. 

During a Commons debate in January, Byrne attacked “the behaviour of Hugh Tomlinson, Geraldine Proudler, Carter-Ruck, Mishcon de Reya, Schillings, CMS and Olswang”, while Conservative MP David Davis highlighted the prevalent use of lawfare to “threaten, intimidate and put the fear of God into British journalists, citizens, officials and media organisations”.

In March, UK Justice Secretary Dominic Raab set out plans to tackle so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), a tactic involving endless legal action and costs to intimidate journalists, authors and campaigners. 

Proposals include amending the Defamation Act 2013 to strengthen the “public interest defence” and the potential introduction of a specific requirement for claimants to prove “actual malice” to deter spurious claims.

Lawyers hit back

Many of the lawyers hit back at their inclusion on the list.

Rechtschaffen told Insider: “I did not act for any oligarch or enabler. Walter Soriano is not an enabler of any oligarch. Mr. Stedman, who lost a hearing in the UK and is in breach of UK court orders, is clutching at straws and is now trying to tarnish my client’s reputation in the American public eye and the American political system.”

A spokesperson for Carter-Ruck said: “The claims made against Carter-Ruck are misconceived and are rejected entirely. In addition to other matters, we are not working for any Russian individuals, companies or entities seeking to challenge, overturn, frustrate or minimise sanctions. We have never acted for Russian individuals, companies or entities seeking to challenge sanctions.

“We condemn the Russian government’s decision to invade Ukraine. We are not acting for, and will not be acting for, any individual, company or entity associated with the Putin regime in any matter or context, whether sanctions-related or otherwise, and will continue to conduct all ‘know your client’ checks in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, as we have always done.”

A spokesperson for Harbottle & Lewis said: “The firm has acted at all time in accordance with its professional and legal obligations, and takes these matters very seriously. The firm has not engaged in an abusive lawsuit as alleged, and there was no such suggestion made when the proceedings were considered by a High Court Judge who reviewed the book and ruled that it contained a number of defamatory allegations.  As such there is no basis for any such steps to be taken.”

A spokesman for Schllings said: “We are on record as confirming that we not acting for any sanctioned entities and that we also hope that sanctions will foreshorten the Putin’s regimes horrendous war in Ukraine. 

“We do not comment on client matters and indeed are not permitted to do so, but we fail to see how any representation of the Malaysian national named by Congressman Cohen could in any circumstances support the (in any event wholly misplaced) allegations that we are acting in the manner alleged in relation to Russian “oligarchs”. 

“Congressman Cohen has been sadly misinformed and there is no basis for any allegation that we have in any way behaved other than in the highest traditions of the legal profession in upholding the rule of law.”  

A CMS spokesperson said: “We strongly reject the allegations of impropriety that have been made against CMS, and in particular Geraldine Proudler.

“We have reviewed the steps taken in our Media Litigation practice and are confident that these were compliant with all professional regulations as well as our wider responsibilities at the time. Congressman Cohen says he seeks to sanction lawyers who are currently performing work for Russian clients, but as we have said since the invasion of Ukraine, CMS is no longer accepting new instructions from Russian based entities or from any individuals with connections to the Russian government.”

Representatives for Tomlinson did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment at the time of publication.