The return of stolen assets is a key part of our response to the Arab Spring, and we are working closely with Egyptian authorities and other North African countries to identify and restrain assets their courts have identified as stolen.
Speaking today, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa Alistair Burt said:
“We understand the strength of feeling in Egypt on this issue and we are working closely with their authorities to identify and restrain assets their courts have identified as stolen.
“It is crucial that the recovery and return of stolen assets is lawful. It is simply not possible for the UK to deprive a person of their assets and return them to an overseas country in the absence of a criminal conviction and confiscation order. We are therefore working closely with the appropriate authorities in Egypt to help them understand the legal process and how to work with it effectively and efficiently, including through expert-expert contacts in the UK and Cairo, the signing of a memorandum of understanding on intelligence sharing with the Egyptian financial intelligence unit, and increased police-to-police intelligence co-operation”.
In response to specific allegations aired by the BBC, Minister Burt said:
“We reject any allegation that the UK could have acted more quickly to freeze assets. HMG cannot obtain a restraint order on the basis of suspicion alone. Substantial evidence is required. That’s why we led efforts to secure an EU wide freeze, giving Egypt time to complete criminal proceedings. It took time to be agreed with all 27 EU countries, as was necessary.
The Foreign Office has passed all the information received from the BBC to relevant authorities. However, as we are unable to talk about individual cases, we cannot comment further on this”.
We have done much to support Egypt and help their authorities understand the asset restraint and recovery process in the UK. Egyptian and UK officials have held a series of meetings on co-operation, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has signed a memorandum of understanding on intelligence sharing with the Egyptian financial intelligence unit, and we have increased police-to-police intelligence co-operation, particularly in the initial stages of an enquiry before an application for Mutual Legal Assistance is made. We also participate in international meetings where appropriate and the UK will continue to drive forward G8 work on this at a Doha meeting on Asset Recovery in September.
Some have alleged that the UK did not move quickly enough to unilaterally identify, restrain and return assets identified as stolen. We have repeatedly made clear to all parties that it is not possible for the UK to deprive a person of their assets and return them to an overseas country in the absence of a criminal conviction and confiscation order. We have also been clear that existing legislation requires a third country which wants the return of assets they believe have been misappropriated, or a third party which believes they have been involved in a transaction involving criminal property, to make the UK aware of their concerns and to present supporting evidence before the UK can act. It is not legally possible for the UK to act unilaterally in this regard. The return of assets to a third country cannot take place without that country’s involvement and co-operation. Nevertheless we have been proactive in finding ways to assist the Egyptians.
Allegations that 30 applications for Mutual Legal Assistance made by the Egyptian authorities were rejected by the UK last year are entirely false. The UK accepted 17 Mutual Legal Assistance requests from the Egyptian authorities in 2011. Where we have received Mutual Legal Assistance requests for asset restraint that are not supported by the necessary evidence, we have written to the Egyptian authorities requesting further information. This is very different to refusing a Mutual Legal Assistance request. When the UK refuses a request the reason is formally set out in writing in a letter.
The UK remains committed to the expeditious recovery and return of stolen assets. But it is vital that this be done in a legally robust way and that systems for the recovery of assets fully respect the rule of law, protecting the innocent as well as pursuing the guilty. We are continuing to look at what more we can do to ensure that the Egyptian authorities have the fullest understanding of the UK legal system and how to work with it most effectively. For example we are planning to second a UK expert to Egypt to help strengthen the Egyptian authorities’ understanding of the UK domestic legal process and are working through how to finalise this with the Egyptian authorities.
The UK government cannot obtain a restraint order on the basis of suspicion alone. The overseas country needs to provide substantial evidence to meet the conditions to enable the restraint order to be obtained before the end of the 31 calendar days. In the case of Egypt we did not receive information on which we could act. Given that there were limited things the UK could do under domestic legislation, and in the absence of the conditions required for Part 7 of the POCA, we decided a more effective way to freeze assets and give Egypt the space to complete criminal proceedings was an EU asset freeze. EU sanctions have to be adopted unanimously by all 27 Member States and it is important that EU Member States have a clear understanding of the rationale for the regime. This can frustratingly take time to achieve and in the case of Egypt the Egyptian authorities took time in clarifying which national judicial process the sanctions would adopt and the clear, specific justifications for designating the named individuals.