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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Why The EU Is Running Scared Over Further Russian Sanctions - Bank Mellat Lawyer

Stephen Little, Reporter, London, 1 April 2014


Following the economic restrictions imposed by the European Union and the US government on Russia, we talk to Sarosh Zaiwalla, the lawyer who got sanctions against Iran's Bank Mellat lifted last year.

Amid rising tensions between the West and Russia over the annexation of Crimea, the European Union and the US imposed sanctions last month on high-ranking individuals connected to President Vladimir Putin, with the possibility of further economic action on the horizon.

In response to the Crimean referendum on 16 March, the US and the EU both carried out their threat to impose sanctions on individual Russians and Ukrainians. The EU punished senior Russian government officials and other named individuals with asset freezes and travels bans, while the US also ordered similar sanctions against 11 individuals.

Later in the week, the US increased its number of sanctioned officials to 31, targetting a number of Putin's inner circle, and blacklisted a high-profile bank, while the EU also extended its sanctions to include another 12 individuals, bringing the total up to 33. The US and the EU also confirmed they would introduce further economic measures if the situation were to escalate.

Despite fresh sanctions from the West, Putin signed a treaty completing the procedure to absorb Crimea into the Russian Federation in a move that was quickly condemned by Western leaders, with US vice-president Joe Biden describing the annexation of the territory as "nothing more than a land grab" by Moscow.

The impact of sanctions was immediate. Shares plummeted in Moscow in response to the new measures and two credit-rating agencies downgraded Russia's outlook from stable to negative. Visa and MasterCard have also restricted access to Russian financial institutions in order to comply with US sanctions.

After sanctions were quashed last year against Bank Mellat, an Iranian bank that was banned from trading with the UK over alleged links with Iran’s nuclear programme, the EU is scared of imposing stricter financial restrictions on Russia, according to Sarosh Zaiwalla, the lawyer who won the case for the bank.

“I have been informed by a confidential source within the EU that it is facing a dilemma and is very reluctant to increase the effort of the sanctions because it is concerned about the effect the Bank Mellat judgment will have,” Zaiwalla told this publication in an interview.

“It is important to remember that the EU and all Western democracies have the basic principle of rule of law. You can’t just put a person under sanction for political reasons. If the state has any allegations against individuals or corporations for any wrongdoing, the state can only act providing it can justify its conduct before a court of law,” he said.

Zaiwalla is senior partner at Zaiwalla & Co Solicitors, and has represented some of the most powerful people in the world.

He was the first Asian to set up a law firm in the City of London 30 years ago and has represented a number of high profile clients, including the Dalai Lama, members of the Ghandi family, and millionaire tycoons Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz. He also famously hired and then fired a young Tony Blair when he was a barrister, before he began his political career. His firm now boasts a £3.5 million ($5.8 million) a year turnover and employs 18 lawyers.

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