Prigozhin and Lawfare

openDemocracy Ltd

In January, we discovered that the government had lifted its own anti-Russia sanctions to help a warmongering plutocrat wage lawfare in a London court. As a result of our journalism and campaigning, the government was forced to tighten its sanctions rules to stop the same thing happening again.

The key character in this story is the late, unlamented Yevgeny Prigozhin, who mysteriously died in a plane crash after launching a short-lived rebellion against Vladimir Putin. His mercenary army, Wagner Group, are well known to people in Ukraine, but also in Mali, Central African Republic, Libya and Syria – where they allegedly massacred civilians, raped and tortured as they went. And in 2021 the crack team of investigative journalists at Bellingcat exposed that Wagner is effectively an arm of the Russian government. No wonder, then, that the US, EU and UK all sanctioned Prigozhin. So when he wanted to sue Eliot Higgins, the head of Bellingcat, in London for defamation – citing the emotional damage caused by Bellingcat’s reporting – the British government had to decide which side they were on. JWe found out that they chose Prigozhin. We discovered that the UK Treasury overrode its own sanctions to allow Prigozhin’s British lawyers to fly business class to St Petersburg so they could meet face-to-face and finalise their legal attack on Higgins. The resulting story, published on 23 January, and its follow-ups, had real impact: the news was covered across British media. It provoked a political storm, with shadow foreign secretary David Lammy tabling an urgent question in Parliament – and several other MPs also referred to the story. Our investigation united journalists, campaigners and politicians around how so-called ‘Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation’ (SLAPPs) silences the media. Thousands of openDemocracy readers signed a petition calling for a full investigation into how Prigozhin was able to sue for libel in London. And through our website, readers sent their MPs more than 4,500 emails about the issue – and 9,000 signed an open letter calling on the government to come clean about what happened. Fleet Street newspapers ran op-eds calling for libel reform. Anti-SLAPP campaigners have cited the investigation as putting new energy in the battle to get the government to honour its promise to end SLAPPs. The government promised a “review” of procedures but suggested the Prigozhin approvals were made by officials, not ministers – luckily for Rishi Sunak, who was in charge at the Treasury when those decisions were made. Following our reporting, the government’s new rules say that ministers, not civil servants, should make such contentious calls in future. We later found that Prigozhin was planning to launch a legal attack on the BBC. In December 2021, with tension over Russia’s threat to Ukraine growing, the mercenary leader’s lawyers were drawing up a request to the British government to once again let them travel to Russia to meet him. The revelations made headlines globally. The government continues to obfuscate about the process and openDemocracy continues to dig for answers.