Slapp the journalists

Catherine Belton, Nick Cohen tells us, has written a book about Russian plutocrats and their ways, and they are flocking to London courts to sue her into oblivion.

The former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times now faces a pile-on from Russian billionaires on a scale this country has never witnessed. Rosneft, the Kremlin-dominated oil producer (market capitalisation circa $75bn) whose chief executive, president and chairman, Igor Sechin, began his rise to power as Vladimir Putin’s secretary in the 1990s, has lodged an action for libel. No further details were available at the court at the time of going to press.

Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea football boss (estimated net worth $15.3bn) is suing because of what he says are “false and defamatory” statements about his purchase of Chelsea FC. Mikhail Fridman, owner of Russia’s largest non-state bank (net worth about $15.6bn) is suing for libel. Fridman’s business partner, Pyotr Aven, (net worth a paltry $5.3bn) is suing for breach of data protection. Aven and Fridman told the Financial Times they “had no contact with, and did not co-ordinate a legal strategy with, the other plaintiffs or their lawyers’’. Finally, there is a legal action by Shalva Chigirinsky, a former property tycoon (net worth unknown) with no details on record.

That’s a lot of billionaires suing.

Last week, Raab promised to fight “with the staunchest resolve” Russia’s “malign activities aimed at undermining other countries’ democratic systems”. If the foreign secretary is serious, perhaps he should take a look at London’s high-class service sector for the super-rich. He is unlikely to be able to rely on the legal profession to ask the hard moral and political questions for him.

I learned that in 2013 when I sat through a libel case arising from the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a foul Moscow prison. He worked for the Hermitage Capital fund and died suffering from horrible illnesses after he showed how former Russian officials and gangsters (a distinction without a difference if ever there was one) stole about $230m from the Russian taxpayer. His friend and boss at Hermitage, Bill Browder, began a successful global campaign to freeze the western holdings of corrupt Russians.

One official, Pavel Karpov, sued Browder for libel in London. Browder won, but Karpov stayed in Moscow and refused to pay Browder’s costs of £600,000. In other words, Russia, an actively hostile foreign power, appeared able to use the English legal system to impose the punishment of a huge fine on one of its most effective critics.

Slapp suits much?

[T]he EU is under pressure to act against what Americans call strategic lawsuits against public participation. Slapp actions grant access to the courts to powerful individuals or organisations that are less interested in actual verdicts than the prospect of extraordinarily expensive legal costs browbeating critics. My friends at Index on Censorship tell me that Britain has shown no interest in following suit.

Jobs for the barristers is it?

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