Pistorius granted bail, but when are the rich a flight risk?

It's easier for a millionaire to disappear than anyone else, but it still isn't a walk in the park.

Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was yesterday granted bail until his trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, but some fear he's a flight risk.

If Pistorius decided to jump bail, what would he have to do next, Spear's wondered? The wealthy have a history of trying to flee justice, and so we sent Oliver Thring to investigate how to disappear:

Flight has a long and inglorious history, of course, for men in trouble. Lord Lucan vanished in 1974, his blood-stained car found abandoned at an English ferry port shortly after his children’s nanny had been bludgeoned to death. Asil Nadir spent seventeen years in Northern Cyprus evading prosecution in the British courts for the theft of at least £34 million from Polly Peck.

And just last June the Brazilian-born industrialist Guma Aguiar, who had been embroiled in a billion-dollar business dispute, disappeared from his yacht. His wife claims he may be hiding in the Netherlands, but she and his mother are now scrapping over his $100 million fortune nonetheless.

Reading Thring's piece, it doesn't seem very likely Pistorius would succeed in going underground — he wouldn't be able to use any emails, or use a credit card, and he'd have to throw away all of his electronic devices, for a start.

Oliver Crofton is the director of technology security firm Vigilante Bespoke. ‘It’s nigh-on impossible to have an existence where you aren’t tracked or traced by technology,’ he says. John McAfee’s precise location in Guatemala, for example, was determined by the GPS co-ordinates embedded in a photo taken of him then posted online.

‘If the person really wanted to hide,’ says Crofton, ‘they’d need to change their name and chuck every device they had in the river. They couldn’t even open any emails, and they certainly couldn’t use a credit card — just a suitcase full of dollars.’ Crofton believes that people who flee their country without trying to stay hidden are ‘relying on people losing interest in them because tracing them, and their money, might get a bit complicated. I don’t think that’s a particularly failsafe plan.’

And it would require forward planning: he might want to try and gain citizenship for a country that won't seek to extradite him. Unless he can make a suitcase full of dollars last a lifetime, there would be the problem of trying to set up a complex enough financial structure to hide his money away.

‘I would always ask a prospective client why he wanted to hide his assets,’ says Bharat Pindoria of Pindoria Solicitors, who specialises in asset protection. (Pindoria emphasises that his firm ‘does not do asset protection to help criminals’.) ‘If the client said he’d ballsed up and might be in trouble, we wouldn’t be able to advise him, but if he lied and said it was to move abroad or because he had better opportunities elsewhere, that would be a different matter.’ For an unscrupulous person, then, another lie here is no trouble.

The best way to store stolen money or property is to transfer ownership offshore, adding as many degrees of remove as possible. ‘There would be no bank account in your name,’ says Pindoria. ‘You’re in Panama and you have power of attorney to withdraw money from a company in Mauritius, which might have a bank account in the Dutch Antilles. The Mauritius company is owned by a Belize company, which is owned by a Dutch Antilles trust.’

All of this, of course, would require expert legal advice — at a time when Pistorius might just struggle to find a lawyer.

Even if he did manage to disappear, just as the world's media is focussed on him, the psychological trauma of a lifetime spent hiding might just be too much to bear, and the stress could exacerbate any borderline personality disorder, or underlying psychological problems, he might have.

As Oliver Thring learned, many have tried, but not many have succeeded in disappearing.

An earlier version of this piece was posted on Spear's.

The hands of South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius are pictured as he appeared at the Magistrate Court in Pretoria on February 22, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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