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    The UK government “allowed lawyers to circumvent sanctions” to help a Putin ally sue a journalist

     

    Documents seen by Open Democracy show that the British company received permission to work with the founder of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin

    According to documents published on the Open Democracy website, British lawyers have received government permission to circumvent sanctions to help Yevgeny Prigozhin, the controversial Russian businessman and founder of the Wagner Group, sue the journalist.

    The documents relate to a defamation case that Prigozhin brought against Eliot Higgins, founder of investigative group Bellingcat, in 2021. The revelations raise further questions about the abuse of UK defamation law by the super-rich.

     

    The London firm Discreet Law, headed by Roger Gerson, asked for and received government permission to cooperate with Prigozhin, Open Democracy reports. It is reported that the firm, together with a Russian law firm, has developed a legal plan for the businessman.

    Prigozhin, who spent his 20 years in prison, became a hot dog vendor after his release and later became one of the most influential people in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

    For years, Prigozhin denied any ties to Wagner’s mercenary group, which operated in Syria and many African countries, and filed a lawsuit against Higgins over allegations that he was involved in Wagner’s crimes.

    Last September, Prigozhin admitted that he had founded Wagner in 2014 and said he had taken legal action against journalists who made claims because “in any matter there should be a place for sport”.

    Discreet lawyers stopped representing Prigozhin in March, a month after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the case was eventually dismissed in May. However, Higgins was left with an estimated cost of £70,000.

    “This lawsuit was in retaliation for the Bellingcat articles about Prigozhin that are mentioned in the EU sanctions against him,” Higgins tweeted on Tuesday. “We are fortunate that his lawyers refused, otherwise it could have cost £100,000 to pursue a case which is clearly illegitimate.”

    Discreet Law conducts business on a legal basis in Great Britain, acting with the permission of the Ministry of Finance.

    Documents and leaked emails show how Discreet Law received permission from the Office for Financial Sanctions (OFSI), a department within the Treasury, to represent Prigozhin despite the fact that he was under sanctions. According to the report, Gerson and another Discreet lawyer traveled to St. Petersburg in October 2021 to discuss coordinating the case.

    The case was directed at Higgins personally, not at Bellingcat, relying on Higgins’ tweets referencing Bellingcat’s investigation into Prigozhin. This meant that Prigozhin could sue in the UK, where libel laws are less favorable to journalists, rather than in the Netherlands, where Bellingcat is based.

    The statement claimed that Prigozhin had suffered “great distress” because the Bellingcat reports had damaged his reputation.

    Higgins said the case provides more evidence for the government to consider when considering anti-Slepp legislation aimed at preventing malicious lawsuits against journalists and activists.

    After the case was closed, Prigozhin became one of the most public figures in Putin’s war in Ukraine, recruiting prisoners to serve in his Wagner battalions and appearing to approve of Wagner’s extrajudicial killing of a defector with a sledgehammer.

    Gerson told the Financial Times that Discreet Law had “always fully complied with its legal and professional obligations”.

     

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