Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, is coming under intense pressure to use Britain’s newly created human rights regime against Beijing, including Chinese officials and Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam.
Announcing Britain’s new global sanctions regime, Mr Raab said it would initially target 49 individuals and organisations in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea guilty of notorious abuses.
The UK did not name any Chinese targets, but the new system is set to become a vehicle for the growing lobby of MPs who accuse Beijing of human rights violations.
The British sanctions regime was unveiled a week after China passed a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong that will increase Beijing’s grip on the territory and has drawn international condemnation.
Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, and Chris Bryant, former Labour minister, said Ms Lam should be added to the sanctions list over the crackdown on liberties in Hong Kong.
The sanctions regime — targeted at individuals rather than states — will include asset seizures and travel bans. Mr Duncan Smith said he believed Ms Lam’s family had “the privilege of British passports”.
MPs said Chinese officials responsible for the oppression of Muslim Uighurs in the west of the country should also be added to the sanctions list.
Tom Tugendhat, Tory chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said there had been “a remarkable silence on China”.
Mr Raab said the regime marked Britain out as “a force for good in the world” and would be kept under review.
Sanctions under the so-called British “Magnitsky Act” — named after the Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after alleging officials were involved in tax fraud — will take immediate effect.
Mr Raab told MPs: “Those with blood on their hands, the thugs of despots, the henchmen of dictators, won’t be free to waltz into this country, to buy up property on the Kings Road, do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or siphon dirty money through British banks.”
The new British regime — similar to ones in place in the US, Canada and the Baltic states — will focus on four specific incidents or cases of human rights abuses.
Brexit provided the impetus for the UK to create its new regime. It could have set it up at any time during its EU membership though a question remains over whether the asset freeze element is compatible with bloc law, which applies until the end of the Brexit transition period in December.
Mr Raab named 25 Russian nationals involved in the mistreatment and death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, whose widow Natalia and son Nikita watched the statement from the Foreign Office.
Also included in the sanctions list are two high-ranking Myanmar generals involved in violence against the Rohingya people and two organisations engaged in forced labour, murder and torture in North Korea.
Some 20 Saudis allegedly involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 are targeted too.
Although the sanctions target Saudi individuals — two of whom were close advisers to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — they will be embarrassing for the kingdom, which has been lumped together with the regimes in Russia, North Korea and Myanmar.
The crown prince has been desperate to put the Khashoggi murder, which triggered the kingdom’s worst diplomatic crisis in years, behind him as he seeks to lure foreign investment to support his bold reform plans and Saudi Arabia chairs the G20 this year.
Among those facing sanctions is Saud al-Qahtani, the Saudi official closest to Prince Mohammed to be implicated in the Khashoggi murder. Saudi authorities investigated Mr Qahtani but he was not charged because of a lack of evidence, the kingdom’s deputy attorney-general said in December.
Saudi activists described the decision to exonerate Mr Qahtani and Ahmed Assiri, deputy intelligence chief at the time of the killing, as a whitewash. A Saudi court ruled last year that Mr Assiri, who is also on the UK list, should be released because of insufficient evidence.
Eight people were found guilty by a Saudi court of murdering Khashoggi, with five sentenced to death. None of those sentenced were named.
The 25 Russians targeted under the act are all already sanctioned by the US. They range from Aleksei Anichin, Russia’s deputy interior minister at the time of Mr Magnitsky’s death, to the judge who approved his arrest and extended detention.
The sanctions also apply to Alexander Bastrykin, a university classmate of president Vladimir Putin and head of Russia’s federal investigations agency, who led the probe into police conduct surrounding Mr Magnitsky’s death.
The sanctions will further damage a dire geopolitical relationship between London and Moscow, which has been battered by Moscow’s 2018 nerve agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal, the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London by Russian operatives and the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Russia’s embassy in London responded to the sanctions by saying Moscow “reserves the right to reciprocate”.
The Myanmar designations — Min Aung Hlaing, head of the armed forces, and Soe Win, his deputy — over the brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims highlight a question over the practical impact of some listings.
Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based analyst, said the listing of the pair was “largely symbolic” because they had “no known assets in the UK and wouldn’t be allowed to travel there anyway”.
Oliver Bullough, a journalist and author focused on Russia and corruption, warned that whatever sanctions are imposed would be “easily evaded” unless the UK did more to crack down on corrupt financial flows through the City of London.
Sanctions by the UN and the US in response to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons programme already block trade with North Korea and cut off the access of the country’s elites to foreign sources of cash and luxury goods. But the UK’s move has been welcomed by non-governmental groups, including the US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, who say human rights abuses, including crimes against humanity, have been overshadowed by international concern with the nuclear threat.
Additional reporting by Edward White in Wellington