U.S. launches 'KleptoCapture' task force aimed at Russian oligarchs

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WASHINGTON, March 2 (Reuters) - A new U.S. federal "KleptoCapture" task force will work to further strain the finances of Russia's oligarchs to pressure the country to cease its invasion of Ukraine, the Justice Department said on Wednesday.

The interagency law enforcement group will be dedicated to enforcing sanctions, export restrictions and economic countermeasures designed to freeze Russia out of global markets, Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

The task force's name comes from the word "kleptocracy," defined as corrupt individuals who misuse their powers to accumulate wealth at the expense of those they govern.

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"To those bolstering the Russian regime through corruption and sanctions evasion: we will deprive you of safe haven and hold you accountable," said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. "Oligarchs be warned: we will use every tool to freeze and seize your criminal proceeds."

The task force will be run out of Monaco's office, and will be responsible for investigating and prosecuting violations of sanctions. It will use civil and criminal asset forfeiture laws to seize assets obtained through unlawful conduct.

Washington and its allies have sought to up the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin and those closest to him to try to force an end to the assault on Ukraine, the worst attack on a European state since World War Two. More than 2,000 civilians have been killed.

The Justice Department has long had a team to track down assets belonging to kleptocrats from around the globe that are linked to crimes with an impact on the U.S. financial system, such as money laundering, sanctions evasion or foreign bribes.

The new task force will target the crimes of Russian officials and government-connected elites.

"Arrests and prosecution will be sought when supported by the facts and the law," the department said in its announcement. "Even if defendants cannot be immediately detained, asset seizures and civil forfeitures of unlawful proceeds — including personal real estate, financial and commercial assets — will be used to deny resources that enable Russian aggression."

On Tuesday night, President Joe Biden in his State of the Union speech assailed Putin for his country's attack on Ukraine and put Russian oligarchs and other government leaders he said were corrupt on notice that the Justice Department would be coming for their assets.

"We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains," Biden said.

The task force will be led by a veteran prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York who has experience investigating Russian organized crime and recovering illicit assets, the department said.

The department did not identify the prosecutor by name.

The task force will be staffed by agents and analysts from a variety of law enforcement agencies including the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security's Homeland Security Investigations, IRS-Criminal Investigations and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

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Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller

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