A libel lawsuit brought by a Russian businessman known as president Vladimir Putin’s “chef” against the founder of internet investigative news outlet Bellingcat has been thrown out by a London court.
Evgeny Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by the UK government, had filed the lawsuit against Eliot Higgins in his personal capacity over a number of tweets. The US accuses Prigozhin of bankrolling mercenary group Wagner — accusations he has long denied.
Higgins’ law firm McCue Jury & Partners on Wednesday said the UK High Court legal proceedings had been struck out because of “Prigozhin’s repeated failure to comply with . . . court orders”.
Matthew Jury, managing partner at McCue Jury, said the case was a “blatant” example of a lawsuit intended to stifle public debate, cause Higgins “personal distress” and interfere with Bellingcat’s investigations.
British MPs have expressed concerns that Russian oligarchs have been using the threat of legal action even if it has little merit, to discourage scrutiny of their financial affairs. Lawyers and campaigners say so-called Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) exploits lengthy and expensive legal proceedings in order to silence and intimidate journalists, critics and watchdogs because of the legal costs in defending such cases.
The UK government has announced plans to clamp down on the use of the court system so Russian oligarchs and powerful elites cannot “weaponise” libel litigation as a way of silencing their critics and shielding themselves from scrutiny.
Jury said in a statement: “The current war in Ukraine highlights the immense importance of the work of organisations like Bellingcat and we cannot continue to allow the UK courts and lawyers to be used to stifle genuine public debate and criticism of those in power.”
Higgins added: “While I welcome the conclusion of this case it is yet another reminder of how the UK legal system is abused by wealthy individuals, both at home and abroad, to stifle legitimate investigative reporting into their activities.”
Prigozhin’s catering company Concord on Wednesday told the FT it believed the case was still ongoing. It said the court had given him more time to find a new lawyer after his previous representation were “forced to leave the case under pressure created by the UK”.
Prigozhin’s efforts to find representation have proved unsuccessful because of what Concord described as “political pressure”. Statements from British officials in March about law firms representing oligarchs created a chilling effect, it said.
Prigozhin had been represented by Discreet Law, which applied to the High Court in March to stop acting for him. The firm did not respond to requests seeking comment.
The UK justice secretary Dominic Raab has set out proposals to protect free speech and stop corporations and oligarchs using the courts in England and Wales to lodge libel SLAPP lawsuits. A public consultation on possible reforms closes on Thursday.