UK govt allowed lawyers to bypass sanctions to help Wagner Group chief sue British journalist

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. News18

New Delhi: The UK authorities allowed a legal firm to bypass sanctions to represent Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close aid and the owner of Mercenary group Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin in a law suit against a British journalist, the investigative website Open Democracy reported.

British investigative journalist Eliot Higgins was slapped with a Libel case by Prigozhin in 2021 over claims by his website Bellingcat that he (Prigozhin) was linked to Wagner’s misdeeds.

Wagner Group was active in Africa and Syria, where it was accused of grave human rights abuses, before its participation in the ongoing war in Ukraine. Prigozhin for many years denied any relation with the group. In September last year, he admitted to have founded the group in 2014.

Prigozhin hired the British law firm ‘Discreet Law’ to represent his libel suit against Higgins. However, since he was under sanctions, the law firm had to obtain special permission to pursue the case.

In March 2021 — under the present Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s leadership, who at the time was the Chancellor of the Exchequer — Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI), a department inside the Treasury, granted ‘Discreet Law’ the permission to represent Prigozhin.

Notably, in the crosshairs was not Higgins’s website Bellingcat, but, he himself. The law suit was based on Higgins tweets linking to the Bellingant’s investigative article on Prigozhin. This was done on purpose, according to the Guardian. This allowed Higgins to be sued in the UK, where Libel laws are not favourable to journalists as compared to Netherlands, where the Bellingcat is based.

The Guardian reported that 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.

“Enabling people to defend themselves is part of a functioning democracy”, the spokesman was quoted as saying.

After Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, 2022, the law firm stopped representing Prigozhin. However, Higgins was still left with estimated costs of ?70,000. But the law firm not pulled out, the costs would have around ?100,000s, Higgins said.

Roger Gherson, the head of the law firm, told the Financial Times that they had “at all times complied fully with their legal and professional obligations”.

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