Can I Pay You in Rubles?

Meet the young British lawyer who could unravel the West’s sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs.

From Tehran to Moscow, the Obama administration and its European allies have made targeted sanctions their weapon of choice against rogue governments and those who support them. The business people, political leaders, spooks, and soldiers who find themselves on those blacklists have a surprising ally: an understated British lawyer named Maya Lester.

Lester, 39, has built a successful career getting Iranian, Syrian, Egyptian, and Burmese clients out of Western crosshairs. She's already started getting calls from people sanctioned after Russia annexed Crimea and moved tens of thousands of troops to its border with Ukraine. The crisis there is intensifying by the day, and President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel used a Friday press conference at the White House to warn that more sanctions may be coming. When they do, Lester's phone will likely be ringing off the hook.

She's an unlikely combatant in the financial wars. Lester said she has no opinion about whether sanctions should be used or their effectiveness. Her core belief, she said, is that those accused of supporting terrorists, working with corrupt regimes, or trafficking in weapons should have the same rights as anyone else to challenge their accusers before a judge. She believes the lawsuits she brings make the sanctions system stronger.

"I don't think anyone benefits from a system that puts the wrong people on the list," Lester said in an interview from London. "The goal of everyone, including those who argue for due process, is a robust system."

Lester travels around the world to meet her clients, many of whom are legally barred from setting foot in other countries, let alone flying to Washington or Europe to plead their cases. When she shows them the evidence against them, Lester said, it's usually the first time anyone has told them why they're even on the list. "They're very often very grateful," she said.

Taking on unpopular causes runs in her family. Her father is Lord Anthony Lester, a prominent human rights pioneer who spearheaded equality and anti-discrimination laws in the U.K. after studying at Harvard in the 1960s. Her mother, Katya Lester, is an immigration judge, who hears cases of asylum-seekers. Grandfathers on both sides were also in the legal profession. Though she practices in London, she studied at Yale Law School and spent time as a fellow at the U.S. State Department in 2012.

"It didn't come out of nowhere," said her brother, Gideon Lester, a professor of theater at Bard College. "Law and particularly human rights law was very much a subject of regular conversation when we were growing up."

He said his younger sister has a fierceness and a tenacity, hidden behind her soft curls and big brown eyes.

"I mean this in the nicest way -- there's a bit of a terrier about her," he said. "She likes to grab hold of a problem and wrestle it to the ground."

The biggest challenge to the European sanctions regime, so far, involved Saudi Arabian businessman Yassin Abdullah Kadi. He was sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council in 2001, at the request of the U.S., for his alleged association with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. That meant that he was also blacklisted in Europe. Lester and Kadi's team of lawyers have won several cases on his behalf. Europe's top court, the Court of Justice, ruled that the E.U. couldn't implement the U.N.'s sanction decree without evidence to substantiate it, removing him from the E.U. list. In 2012, Kadi was removed from the United Nations list, but Washington hasn't lifted its sanctions. American courts have given U.S. authorities broader leeway to build their cases for sanctions on classified information, which is not shared with blacklisted people or their lawyers. "We don't know whether there's compelling evidence held in a file by the U.S., but I haven't seen that," Lester said.

The Kadi case highlights a key difference between the way Washington sanctions its targets and the way the E.U. does, a divide that is on full display as the West looks for a way of punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin for menacing Ukraine. While the European Union extends due process rights, including the presumption of innocence, to anyone blacklisted, the U.S. government does not. The U.S. Treasury, under authority from the president, can blacklist people if it has "reason to believe" they are supporting terrorism or a nefarious regime. Kadi has challenged his status in the U.S., but in his case, as in others, the U.S. courts have ruled in the government's favor. A Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment on Kadi's case.

Though both Washington and Brussels issued incremental new sanctions this week, the U.S. move went further. The Obama administration targeted individual business people and banks with links to the Putin regime, but Europe avoided sanctioning banks and companies and went after only military leaders and politicians. Europe's reluctance to take stronger measures reflects its lucrative economic ties with Russia, but it also stems from a reluctance to get sued at home in a court system that gives challengers far higher chances of success than they would have in the United States.

Juan Zarate, a former senior Treasury Department official charged with overseeing the U.S. sanctions program, said European policymakers "fear that fundamental challenges to their sanctions system will crumble the targeted sanctions regime across the board."

"The litigation challenges the E.U. has faced to its imposition of aggressive targeted sanctions -- from alleged terrorist financiers to Iranian banks -- has certainly tempered European willingness to push the envelope in using these tools," he said.

Some of the people who've found themselves on the E.U. blacklist over Ukraine are already preparing to challenge their punishments in Europe. Sanctioned individuals have roughly two and half months to appeal their designations, the first round of which were issued March 6, so the cases could come in the next days or weeks.

Many of those cases could be argued by Lester, whose specialty is litigating sanctions cases before European courts and picking apart the government's justification for blacklisting her clients. She's built so strong a reputation that other, older lawyers routinely bring her on to argue their cases in court. In the Kadi case, she worked with a more senior litigator, David Anderson.

He said that Lester's straightforward style in court is part of what makes her so successful.

"She will argue a difficult case and will retain the respect of the court while doing it," Anderson said. "She is a serious lawyer; she's not a rabble-rouser."

The Kadi case set a precedent in Europe for sanctioned people's rights to know the evidence against them and be given a chance to defend themselves. European authorities have to make a case and present evidence as to why a particular person was designated. Since the Kadi case, Lester has successfully gotten several other individuals and companies off the list because the court decided the evidence against them wasn't strong enough.

For instance, Lester has represented at least 20 Iranian clients, including Iran's energy ministry, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, and several Iranian banks. Though many of them were removed from the list, some of them have been added back, after the government bolstered the case against them.

Despite those defeats, clients keep coming. In 2008, Anderson and Lester went on to work together on the case of a Burmese man, Pye Phyo Tay Za, who was sanctioned because his father was close to the junta. In March 2012, the E.U. court ruled in favor of Lester and her client, saying that it was against E.U. law to sanction someone based solely on a family connection. Lester's most recent case involves a Belarusian soccer team that can't travel to championships because it has been blacklisted based on one of its owners' relationship to the president of Belarus.

Lester's cases are considered "glamorous work" in England, Anderson said.

"There's no opprobrium attached to representing someone who is accused of being an associate of al Qaeda," he said. "Maybe because we didn't have 9/11."

Anderson now serves as the independent reviewer of Britain's terrorism legislation, making him a watchdog that effectively oversees U.K. anti-terror policy.

Lester, meanwhile, is described by other lawyers in her field as the "guru" or "go-to" person on sanctions cases. About a year ago, she started blogging on sanctions, further cementing her reputation as a top expert on the E.U.'s punitive economic measures. Michael O'Kane, a partner at Peters & Peters, who runs the blog with Lester, said she's made more appearances before Europe's top court than any other junior barrister.

She's likely to make more in the months to come as the Russia sanctions lists continue to grow. Sanctions lawyer Nigel Kushner said E.U. sanctions are still easier to challenge than in the U.S., but it's becoming harder as policymakers take greater care in drafting the measures. Still, he said, the listings over Ukraine could be vulnerable because of their variety.

"One person's a TV presenter, one person's an oligarch, one person purports to be in Putin's inner circle," said Kushner, the head of W Legal Limited. "They seem to have picked out specific individuals that don't fall into a broad category."

Though it could take over a year for any case to conclude, a challenge in the E.U. could rattle the determination of an already shaky coalition on sanctions. As Western countries scramble to figure out how to contain Putin, Russian troops remain on Ukraine's border and the new government in Kiev has lost control of parts of eastern Ukraine to pro-Russia separatists.

Like most lawyers around the world, most of Lester's work days are spent poring through lengthy documents and trying to poke holes in her opponents' cases. There's one key difference, though: Lester has to dress up in a traditional gown and horsehair wig when she goes to court, a far cry from the staid suits worn in the United States. The costume is being reconsidered lately, as more and more judges decide to hang up the wig. Lester has to pack it up and take it with her every time she travels to Luxembourg for a case in front of the European Court of Justice, where lawyers all suit up in what they'd wear to court in their home countries. But she said she doesn't mind.

"There's just something about dressing up in uniform that makes you feel like you're going into battle to have a good fight," she said.

Courtesy of Maya Lester.


Rough Ride on the New Silk Road

China's plan to build a new trade route with Pakistan is threatened at both ends by terrorism.

A bloody bombing and knife attack Thursday in the capital of China's western Xinjiang province, apparently timed to coincide with a high-profile visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, was awful in its own right, leaving one dead and almost 80 injured.

But the attack, which Beijing blamed on Muslim Uighur separatists, also underscored the perils of China's plans to build a new "Silk Road" between western Chinese provinces like Xinjiang and central and southwest Asian countries like Pakistan. For now, at least, both ends of that trade route are threatened by Islamist extremists. Until those militants are defeated, the new Silk Road, the centerpiece of Beijing's plans for diversifying its energy supply, may largely remain a pipe dream.

Losing the Silk Road would be a blow for China. Since it became a net oil importer in the early 1990s, China has watched with alarm as its economy has become increasingly dependent on the oil carried aboard the massive tankers snaking from Africa and the Middle East to the bustling east China coast. Transporting that oil using overland trade routes, like the caravan trails that connected China and the Middle East thousands of years ago, would go some way toward freeing Chinese leaders from constantly worrying that the United States will cut off their economic lifeline in the event of conflict by preventing oil tankers from bringing their precious cargo to Chinese shores.

The Obama administration is trying to pivot the United States to Asia by increasing its diplomatic, economic, and military presence in the fastest-growing part of the world. China has been trying to pull off its own pivot, to the west. The strategy involves spending billions of dollars to build roads, railroads, and energy pipelines between western China and countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan.

The idea is to promote economic development across a stretch of the world -- including a large swath of China -- that has seen far too little of it. At the same time, the plan offers Beijing a way to get more energy from central Asia and the Middle East. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor, for example, is meant to give China access to ports within spitting distance of the Middle East, while helping Pakistan spur growth in a moribund economy.

Ironically, a "New Silk Road" was also a mainstay of Hillary Clinton's tenure at the head of the State Department. But U.S. plans to promote greater trade and energy links across central and southern Asia as a way to help countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan have basically come to naught.

China's own Silk Road, in contrast, was a highpoint of Chinese cultural and commercial influence under ancient dynasties, and was formally resuscitated last year by top Chinese officials. Unlike the American version, China's new Silk Road seems to be proceeding apace, with ambitious building projects, high-level state visits, and bucket loads of cash.

The problem? Violent, Islamist-inspired separatists are becoming increasingly brazen at both ends of that corridor, with deadly attacks in southern Pakistan and Western China in just the last month. Uighur leaders swore in March to wage war on China. And President Xi's vow to crack down on Uighur separatists in the wake of the latest attack has some observers worried Beijing will create even more tensions in a region already resentful of Han influence.

On the other end of the route, in southern Pakistan, terrorism is a growing problem, even by the country's depressingly high standards. One of the notable points to emerge from a February meeting between Pakistan's president and China's premier was Beijing's insistence that Pakistan crack down on domestic terrorism, which threatens multi-billion dollar Chinese investments.

"For decades, the U.S. has been dealing with Islamabad" in an effort to make Pakistani interests and U.S. interests align, said Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Managing that relationship, combined with growing Chinese reliance on oil imports from Saudi Arabia, is "going to have a similar impact on Chinese foreign policy as it did for us," he said.

China's foothold at the other extreme of that future trade corridor is the little-used deep-water port of Gwadar, which it helped build and which it gained control of last year. Nestled in the southwestern corner of Baluchistan, a restive and rebellious Pakistani province, Gwadar represents both the promise and the perils of China's approach to diversifying its energy flows.

The huge port complex is built to handle massive tankers and container ships, and is located less than 200 miles from the Persian Gulf. That is important to China, the world's biggest oil importer. Shipping crude from the Middle East into Gwadar, and then loading it onto pipelines bound for China can shave thousands of miles off the route that oil tankers have to take all the way to Asia.

That's no small matter for a country which has spent the last decade obsessing about the so-called "Malacca Dilemma," China's huge reliance on constricted and potentially vulnerable sea lanes in Southeast Asia for the overwhelming majority of its energy imports. China's pivot to the West is a way to avoid depending too much on maritime chokepoints, a strategic vulnerability which keeps Chinese navy planners up at night.

But the move west, and the hopes and nearly $2 billion China is investing in Gwadar, carry their own risks.

In recent years, the once secular region of Baluchistan has become home to an "exponentially growing" sectarian security threat with little prospect the Pakistani government can rein in the violence, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted in a report last year. Energy infrastructure, including pipelines, is a favorite target for violent attacks there. Separatists in Baluchistan have on several occasions attacked Chinese workers developing the port complex at Gwadar. Pakistani security forces and Baluch separatists traded violent blows several times in the last month.

And it's not just the port itself that is at risk: The land link between China and Gwadar is an old, 800-mile road, the Karakoram Highway, which is prone to natural disasters and unnatural sectarian violence. China is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the old highway, and Pakistani forces regularly patrol the route, but it remains a vulnerable chokepoint for overland connections between the two countries.

Greater Chinese reliance on Pakistan and the greater Middle East could have one silver lining for American policymakers, said Kuchins of CSIS: Beijing would likely be more inclined to support U.S. efforts to stamp out all varieties of Islamist-inspired terrorism, rather than just worrying about its own militant Uighurs.  

To be sure, the road from Xinjiang to Gwadar is far from China's only effort at diversifying the source of its raw materials. Beijing has built pipelines and highways to tap the oil, gas, and other resources of Central Asian countries in recent years. It also has an overland pipeline through Myanmar that offers another end-run around its maritime vulnerabilities. And Beijing and Moscow could sign as soon as next week a historic accord to increase energy trade between the two countries.

But as shown by China's adventures in Africa, and especially in South Sudan, the quest for resources often brings with it unexpected foreign-policy commitments and the need to invest heavily not just in roads and airports, but in shaping the internal politics of countries where China is heavily invested.

For the future of the new Silk Road, that means trying to make sure that Islamabad makes cracking down on terrorist groups, especially those linked to Uighur separatists, as big a priority as Beijing has. If past is prologue, China can expect a long and bumpy ride.

Adrian Bradshaw - AFP - Getty