Russia accuses U.K. of breaking law in British Council affair

By RIA Novosti

Moscow : The Russian foreign minister accused Britain on Friday of violating international law in the latest row over the British Council in Russia.

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“In the situation with the British Council, our British colleagues are trying to manipulate international law, which they violated themselves just like they have violated Russian laws,” Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Moscow.

Lavrov’s comment came following the British foreign secretary’s statement on Wednesday over the closure of British Council offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg. David Miliband slammed Russia’s decision, saying its actions were very serious and illegal.

Russia announced on Wednesday it would temporarily ban the British Council in all its regions except Moscow from January 1, saying three regional cultural offices had not been legally registered.

“We planned to give legal status to the British Council’s activities on the basis of a new agreement. But in the summer, Britain began making systematic moves to worsen relations with Russia,” the minister said.

Relations between the two countries hit an all-time low following the murder of Kremlin critic and security service defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006. London expelled Russian diplomats, imposed visa restrictions and suspended anti-terrorism cooperation with Russia after it refused to extradite the main suspect in the case. Moscow followed suit.

“Such things should not be tolerated in diplomacy,” Lavrov said adding Russia decided to suspend work on the British Council’s status in response to its policies.

The British Council, whose Russian offices were raided by tax police in 2004, has been involved in three years of legal wrangling with authorities over alleged non-payment of tax and questions over its legal status.

The non-governmental organization, which is the cultural arm of the British Embassy and promotes education and cultural programs, first established an office in Moscow in the 1990s, going on to open a further 14 offices across Russia.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry earlier said there was no bilateral status agreement in place to permit the opening of these regional offices, and the British Council had in fact made no requests to open its branches.

The British Council and the Foreign Office have repeatedly denied tax laws have been breached, and said the council was operating in compliance with both Russian and U.K. legislation.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called on Moscow on Thursday to halt its plan to close offices of the British government’s cultural arm in Russian regions, saying it was unacceptable.

“This is totally unacceptable … We wish this action to be desisted from immediately,” Brown told a parliamentary committee.