18 May Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s SLAPP action against Bellingcat founder is struck out
Defamation proceedings brought against Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian national closely associated with Wagner Group and President Putin, have been struck out by the High Court in London.
This case was a demonstrable example of ‘Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Instead of seeking a legitimate remedy, Prigozhin brought the case against Higgins in his personal capacity, rather than Bellingcat, with the clear intent to cause him maximum personal distress; thereby stifling genuine public debate.
Both Prigozhin and Wagner Group have been repeatedly subject to financial sanctions by multiple governments (including that of the UK). Prigozhin was made subject to financial sanctions in the UK and EU for his association with Wagner Group’s activities in breach of the arms embargo in Libya. Wagner Group has been accused of gross human rights violations in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Mali.
The proceedings were struck out due to Prigozhin’s repeated failure to comply with simple Court orders. This followed his legal representatives, Discreet Law, withdrawing due—according to Prigozhin—the increased negative attention representing Prigozhin would attract following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Regrettably, before they did so, Discreet Law did not see through the request to HM Treasury for a licence for payment on account of costs that would have enabled Higgins to enforce any costs order issued by the Court against Prigozhin.
While it is a positive step that these proceedings have now been dismissed, enabling Higgins (the award-winning investigator) to focus on the important public interest work of Bellingcat, it is a failure of our current legal system (as well as the lawyers involved) that such a case was brought at all, and it is unarguably unjust that Higgins is the only party to have suffered as a result.
A complaint concerning Discreet Law has been issued to the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority. A copy is enclosed in Annex 2.
Notes to Editor:
Yevgeniy Prigozhin is a Russian national subject to international sanctions by the US, UK, and EU. He has been widely reported as being closely associated with the Wagner Group, a mercenary group often described as Vladimir Putin’s private army. Wagner Group is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Mali. Prigozhin denies any association with the Wagner Group.
Eliot Higgins is the Founder and Creative Director of Bellingcat, otherwise known as The People’s Intelligence Agency. Bellingcat has been instrumental in investigating and documenting war crimes carried out by Russian forces, including Wagner Group, in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Free Speech NGOs, such as Index on Censorship, recognise Prigozhin’s case against Mr Higgins as a Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP). SLAPPs are generally recognised to be lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Recently, the UK Government has pledged to introduce legislation to bring an end to SLAPPs and the Solicitors Regulation Authority has issued guidelines warning solicitors that accepting SLAPP instructions may be a breach of their professional obligations.
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.
It is absurd that an individual sanctioned not only in the UK but US and EU as well, for his connections to Wagner can sue a UK citizen for reporting on those same connections. I have no reasonable expectation that the costs incurred to me and Bellingcat as part of this case can ever be recovered, nor the hours lost to responding to this abuse of the UK legal system, resources that would otherwise be spent on investigating the atrocities committed by Mr Prigozhin's government in Ukraine.
Eliot Higgins, Founder and Creative Director, Bellingcat
We welcome the striking out of this blatant SLAPP brought against our Client for the clear purpose of causing him personal distress and interfering with Bellingcat’s vital work. This is a clear defeat for Prigozhin, but it is a hollow victory for our Client who should never have been the subject to these abusive and meritless proceedings. 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.
Matthew Jury, Managing Partner, McCue Jury & Partners LLP
For further information please contact:
Managing Partner, McCue Jury & Partners LLP