LONDON (AP) — A long-awaited report into Russian influence in British politics says it would be “difficult — if not impossible — to prove” allegations that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum, but “the Government was slow to recognize the existence of the threat.”
The report from parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee said it was “astonishing” that no one sought to protect the 2016 EU referendum from Russian interference, and that British officials should have recognized the Russian threat back in 2014. The authors said there had been no assessment of Russian influence.
“What is clear is that the government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat — only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014,” the report said.
“As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016.”
The report’s authors criticized the British government for “actively avoiding” looking into the Russian threat. “Serious questions needed to be asked” why ministers didn’t look into the issue after evidence of interference in the 2014 Scottish referendum and reports of similar activity in the U.S. elections, it said.
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A report on Russian interference in British politics will finally be published Tuesday amid criticism the government delayed its release for more than six months to shield Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party from embarrassment.
An influential committee of lawmakers plans to deliver its findings to Parliament after staving off what many observers saw as a last-minute effort to once again stall the report, which was originally submitted to Johnson on Oct. 17.
The government initially said the report couldn’t be published until it was reviewed for national security issues, which postponed release until after the Dec. 12 general election. Further holdups were caused by delays in appointing new members to the Intelligence and Security Committee.
Finally, Johnson named five Conservative lawmakers to the nine-person panel in hopes his handpicked candidate would be chosen as chairman and block the report. The gambit failed when a renegade Conservative was chosen to head the committee with backing from opposition parties.
“Completely self-defeating act that bears the hallmark of a government so arrogant it really believes it is above scrutiny,” Lisa Nandy, the opposition Labour Party’s spokeswoman on foreign affairs, tweeted. “What is in the Russia report that Johnson doesn’t want to see the light of day?”
Labour has accused the government of failing to publish the report because it would lead to further questions about links between Russia and the pro-Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum on European Union membership, which Johnson helped lead.
Another parliamentary panel — the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee — previously published the results of its own inquiry into disinformation and “fake news,” which called on election regulators and law enforcement to investigate reports that a British businessman with links to Russia donated 8.4 million pounds ($10.6 million) to the Brexit campaign. The National Crime Agency said in September that it found no evidence of criminal offenses related to the donation.
The intelligence committee report covers the full range of the Russian threat to the U.K., including election interference, espionage and targeted assassinations such as the attempt to kill former spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury two years ago, said Dominic Grieve, who chaired the panel until he left the House of Commons after the election. The government’s explanations for delaying the report “are simply not credible,” Grieve said in an interview with Britain’
“I hope that when it comes out … it will be useful and informative to the public, which is what it was intended it to be when we were trying bring it out at the end of October, early November,” he said.
The report’s release comes only days after Britain, the United States and Canada accused hackers linked to Russian intelligence agencies of trying to steal information from researchers working on a potential coronavirus vaccine.
“The government hasn’t been reticent about calling out other cases of Russian influence operations, including attributing cyber-operations to Russia,” Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies told The Associated Press.
“Why the reluctance to bring evidence of political funding into the public domain?”
U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang
The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.
“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.
Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.
“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.
In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”
While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.
“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”
The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.
British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”
She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.
“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.
Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access – was unable to participate.
“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”
(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)
Ex-finance minister breached ethics rules in charity dealings
Former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau breached conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing himself when the government awarded a contract to a charity he had close ties to, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said on Thursday.
In a parallel probe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared of having broken any ethics rules when WE Charity was tapped to run a C$900 million ($740.9 million) program to help students find work during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
The charity later walked away from the contract.
Trudeau and Morneau both apologized last year for not recusing themselves during Cabinet discussions involving WE.
Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother had been paid to speak at WE Charity events in previous years, but Dion said this appearance of a conflict of interest was not “real”.
Morneau, on the other hand, was a friend of Craig Kielburger, one of the charity’s founders, Dion said. The charity had “unfettered access” to the minister’s office that “amounted to preferential treatment”, a statement said.
No fines or penalties were levied.
Morneau said on Twitter he should have recused himself. Trudeau said in a statement issued by his office that the decision “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning” that there was no conflict of interest.
Ahead of a possible federal election later this year, the opposition could use the ruling to underscore the government’s uneven track record on ethics. Trudeau has been twice been found in breach of ethics rules in the past.
In August 2019, he was found to have broken rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case, and in December 2017, the previous ethics commissioner said Trudeau had acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.
In a statement, opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said: “To clean up Ottawa, Conservatives will impose higher penalties for individuals who break the Conflict of Interest Act and shine a light on Liberal cover-ups and scandals, ending them once and for all.”
The controversy over Morneau’s ties to the charity was a factor in his resignation in August last year, when he also left his parliamentary seat, saying he would not run again. Chrystia Freeland was named to take over for him a day later.
($1 = 1.2147 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey)
EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June
The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.
Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.
Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.
The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.
Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.
Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.
EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.
“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.
The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.
Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.
“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.
More details were not immediately available.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)
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