Washington — The Justice Department is asking Congress to expand its ability to give proceeds from seized Russian assets to the people of Ukraine, as it continues its fight against Russia's invasion.
The U.S. is "leaving a lot of money on the table" from those forfeitures, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco testified before Congress Wednesday.
"The millions we are seizing and forfeiting because of export control violations, we can't transfer those proceeds to Ukraine," Monaco told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. "There are measures of accountability to make sure that those assets get transferred."
Under current law, federal officials are only able to utilize money seized in specific instances in which individuals illegally evade U.S. sanctions.
Under the authority of a federal task force known as KleptoCapture, federal authorities have seized numerous assets allegedly tied to Russian oligarchs and those supporting Russia, including, jets, and mansions. In all, according to the Justice Department, $500 million in Russian assets have been targeted and more than 30 individuals charged.
In December, Congress passed a law directing the State Department to allocate specific proceeds from assets seized by Justice Department investigators for the benefit of Ukraine. And in February, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that he had authorized the first transfer of forfeited Russian assets for use in Ukraine — $5.4 million seized from alleged sanctions evader and Russian oligarch, Konstantin Malofeyev.
Monaco said the Justice Department wants Congress to broaden the government's forfeiture authority to include those who violate trade laws known as export controls. These laws govern the transfer of certain types of items and technology — like radars, satellite sensors, drones, toxins and more — to people in foreign countries or to foreign nationals in the U.S. This week, prosecutors accused the president of a building materials company of illegally engaging in $150 million in trade with sanctioned Russians, allegedly paying them in return for metal products used in steelmaking.
The deputy attorney general also urged Congress to pass a law giving the Justice Department authority to prosecute certain crimes against humanity. There currently remains a legal loophole where certain atrocious crimes are not covered by war crimes or genocide statutes. Monaco said a new statute would close the gap and offer the authority needed to bring more criminal accountability to places like China and Venezuela.
"Right now, we cannot pursue the type of lawless activity ... that has gone on in Venezuela, the types of atrocities that have been committed by the Chinese against the Uyghurs. We can't pursue that type of justice here in U.S. courts without crimes against humanity statute," Monaco said Thursday.
She faced calls from senators to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, an authority that lies with the State Department. Monaco said there is no legal obstacle to this designation, but that the State Department and President Biden are not in favor of the move. A bill calling on the State Department to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism passed the Senate last year.
The focus on Russian war crimes and combating the aggression in Ukraine came just days after Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin met with Garland and Monaco about law enforcement in the region. Kostin said his nation and U.S. officials are working to "deprive" Russia of resources that finance its war.
Garland suggested that accountability for war crimes isn't coming soon, but added that the Justice Department has a "very long memory" for war crimes and crimes against humanity and in the long run, he expects there will be accountability for perpetrators.
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