UK government ‘let lawyers bypass sanctions’ to help Putin ally sue journalist

UK government ‘let lawyers bypass sanctions’ to help Putin ally sue journalist

Documents seen by Open Democracy show UK firm got approval to engage with Wagner group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin

Yevgeny Prigozhin pictured in 2016.

British lawyers were given government dispensation to bypass sanctions in order to help Yevgeny Prigozhin, the controversial Russian businessman and Wagner group founder, sue a journalist, according to documents made available to the website Open Democracy.

The documents concern a libel case brought by Prigozhin against Eliot Higgins, the founder of the investigative group Bellingcat, in 2021. The revelations will raise further questions about the controversial use of UK libel law by super-rich, non-nationals.

Discreet Law, a London firm headed by Roger Gherson, asked for, and received, government approval to engage with Prigozhin, Open Democracy reported. The firm reportedly worked in consort with a Russian law firm to draw up a legal plan for the businessman.

Prigozhin, who spent his 20s in prison, became a hotdog salesman on his release and then rose to become one of the most powerful people in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

For years, Prigozhin denied all links to the Wagner group of mercenaries which was active in Syria and many African countries, and brought a case against Higgins over claims he was linked to Wagner’s misdeeds.

In September last year, Prigozhin admitted he founded Wagner in 2014, and said he had brought court cases against journalists who had made the claims as “in any issue there should be room for sport”.

Lawyers from Discreet stopped representing Prigozhin in March, a month after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the case was eventually struck out in May. Higgins, however, was left with estimated costs of £70,000.

“This legal action was revenge for Bellingcat’s articles on Prigozhin being cited in EU sanctions against him,” Higgins tweeted on Tuesday. “We were lucky his lawyers pulled out, otherwise it could have cost £100,000s to fight a case that is clearly illegitimate.”

Discreet Law pursued the case legally in the UK, operating with Treasury permission.

The documents and leaked emails show how Discreet Law was given permission by the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI), a department inside the Treasury, to represent Prigozhin despite the fact he was under sanctions. Gherson and another lawyer from Discreet travelled to St Petersburg in October 2021 to discuss coordinating the case, according to the report.

The case targeted Higgins personally, rather than Bellingcat, relying on tweets written by Higgins linking to a Bellingcat investigation into Prigozhin. This meant Prigozhin could sue in the UK, where libel laws are less favourable for journalists, rather than in the Netherlands, where Bellingcat is based.

The filing claimed Prigozhin suffered “great distress” over damage to his reputation in Bellingcat’s reporting.

Higgins said the case provided more evidence that the government needed to take into account when considering anti-Slapp legislation aimed at preventing malicious lawsuits being brought against journalists and activists.

Since the case was dropped, Prigozhin has become one of the most public faces of Putin’s war in Ukraine, recruiting prisoners to serve in his Wagner battalions and appearing to endorse the extrajudicial killing of a Wagner defector with a sledgehammer.

Gherson told the Financial Times that Discreet Law had “at all times complied fully with their legal and professional obligations”.

Rishi Sunak’s spokesman confirmed the case took place under an OFSI scheme whereby sanctioned people can seek to pay legal costs from frozen assets, adding: “Enabling people to defend themselves is part of a functioning democracy.”

UK officials said the decision was made by the OFSI without any ministerial involvement, and that the judgement was purely made over costs, on the basis that the merits or otherwise of the case would be for a court to decide.

Additional reporting by Peter Walker