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29 March 2018updated 07 Sep 2021 10:13am

Britain: friend or foe of brutal regimes?

The UK government’s support for lifting sanctions against a key al-Assad supporter jars with Britain's public rhetoric condemning the Syrian regime. The hypocrisy must end.

By lucy Fisher

The British government actively supported a plan to lift EU sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s London-based fixer, it emerged in today’s Times.

An odd move, you would be forgiven for thinking, since it seems at direct odds with the government’s otherwise robust rhetoric about clamping down on associates of the brutal Syrian regime. Could this be another example of the UK government preaching a tough response to a foreign power publicly, yet following a less hardline approach privately?

Today’s revelations surround millionaire Syrian businessman Soulieman Marouf, whose assets were frozen in October 2012 after his links to the beleaguered Syrian president came to light.

He had been donating funds to a Syrian propaganda channel accused of advocating a savage crackdown on protests. As the beleaguered Assads presided over civil war, Marouf also upheld their taste for luxury goods, despatching shopping from Harrods to Bashar’s British-born wife Asma in Damascus.

His financial activities were eventually subjected to a money-laundering probe in Switzerland after his international bank accounts were found to contain £31 million in cash, despite allegedly limited business activity.

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Understandably, the EU imposed a travel ban and sanctions against Marouf. Yet last summer Foreign Secretary William Hague gave his backing to a plan to lift the sanctions after a challenge from Marouf’s lawyers.

It appears woeful hypocrisy when the the British government has continued publicly to impress its disapproval of the Syrian regime and ramp up its efforts to oppose those associated with it. Only a few months ago Home Secretary Theresa May announced she would look into seizing Syrian money frozen in British bank accounts and donating it to humanitarian aid in Syria and the Middle East region.

The UK support for the reversal of sanctions against Marouf prompts wider questions about the government’s harsh rhetoric against certain autocratic and corrupt regimes and the reality of its attitude towards them.

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Examples of the UK assisting international powers that it publicly condemns are unfortunately too common. Take the case of murdered British citizen Abbas Yazdi last year.

Iranian-born Yazdi had sought refuge in the UK after being detained and tortured in Iran under the ayatollahs in Iran. He plead citizenship in Britain for himself and his family, hoping they would all be safe here from the grasp of the Iranian regime.

Far from protecting him, however, the British government ended up handing over Yazdi’s confidential computer files to Iran in 2012, having obtained his data during a fraud investigation.

And the UK reportedly complied willingly with Iran’s request for information on Yazdi despite relations between the two countries having been “reduced to the lowest possible level” since November 2011, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Yazdi was murdered last year in Dubai, allegedly by Iranian assassins, leaving a widow and two young* children. His wife for one squarely lays the blame for his death at the door of the British government.

There needs to be greater transparency around the UK’s relations with foreign powers and less hypocrisy.

Days before his resignation as immigration minister in February, Mark Harper confirmed that “the UK Central Authority has received requests for mutual legal assistance (MLA) from Iran, Syria and Libya in the last three years.”

What he and the Home Office refused to confirm, however, was whether the British government had complied with any of these requests.

While maintaining confidentality of the details in international criminal cases may be appropriate in certain instances, surely the British public have a right to know just which foreign regimes our government is assisting.