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Ex-civil servant labelled ‘propagandist for Russia’ loses sanctions legal fight

Graham Phillips was made the subject of an ‘asset freeze’ by the UK Government in July 2022.

The Royal Courts of Justice

A British former civil servant described as a “propagandist for Russia” has lost a High Court bid to overturn financial sanctions imposed on him by the UK Government.

Graham Phillips, who is living in Ukraine, was made the subject of an “asset freeze” in July 2022 for supporting the country’s invasion by Russia and producing videos which “glorified” the conflict, a judge was told.

He took legal action against the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, arguing that the decision to sanction him should be quashed.

Lawyers for Mr Phillips argued at a hearing in London last month that he was unable to return to the UK and access any of his funds, making him “effectively excommunicated from the British economy”.

His legal team claimed that ministers had not accused Mr Phillips of any crime, of being part of “Russian State apparatus”, of “advancing the Russian war effort” in Ukraine, or of supporting the Russian economy.

Instead, they argued the “grossly disproportionate” sanction decision “stems entirely from political opinions expressed on YouTube and social media to a primarily UK domestic audience”.

The Government opposed the ex-civil servant’s legal challenge and said he was sanctioned for “supporting the Russian war” by producing and publishing “propagandist video content which glorifies the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its atrocities, and promotes disinformation advanced by Russia as a justification for the invasion”.

In a ruling on Friday, Mr Justice Johnson concluded that the sanctions were lawful and a “proportionate” interference with Mr Phillips’s human rights alongside “the legitimate aim of protecting the UK’s national security”.

The judge said Mr Phillips “decided to set his face against an overwhelming international consensus, to align himself with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to travel to the frontline, and to help Russia fight its propaganda war”.

He added: “He has not shown any journalistic responsibility or ethics. His actions directly support Russia in its policies or actions that destabilise Ukraine.

“There are good reasons to take a firm stand against that conduct so as to pursue the purpose of the (Russia sanctions regulations) and seek to encourage Russia to change its course.”

A different judge, Mr Justice Swift, had originally presided over the case in November, but later ordered that it be re-heard by another judge.

Joshua Hitchens, representing Mr Phillips, said in written arguments for the new December hearing that the former civil servant was the “first mono-British national” to be sanctioned by the British Government.

He said the sanctions were an “unlawful violation” of Mr Phillips’s rights and an “effective exclusion” of him from the UK.

The barrister said they had “a wholly disproportionate effect on his family life, his ability to build and maintain relationships, and his ability to spend time with his elderly parents”.

Mr Hitchens said it was the first example since the Civil War “of the executive asserting a right to deprive someone of all of their possessions in response to lawful political speech”.

He claimed that such a power “would have a profound effect on the nature of our democracy, on the relationship between the citizen and the state and the protection which the law affords the ‘lifeblood of our democracy’, freedom of expression”.

But Maya Lester KC, for the Government, said in written arguments that it was “incorrect” that Mr Phillips had been “deprived of his possessions and of the capacity to meet his basic needs and excluded from the UK”.

She said he retained his British citizenship and right to live in the UK, and that he could apply for licenses to spend money on his basic needs but had declined to do so.

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