Bid by Kazakh mining company to sue journalist is dismissed by judge

Libel claim against Financial Times writer Tom Burgis had been brought to court in London by ENRC

An attempt by a Kazakh mining giant to sue a British journalist for allegedly claiming it ordered the murders of three men has been thrown out by a judge.

HarperCollins, the publisher of Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World, welcomed the victory over what it described as an “egregious case of lawfare” of the type used by wealthy interests to silence journalism.

The libel claim had been brought against the Financial Times journalist Tom Burgis by Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC). Its lawyers argued that parts of the book would be understood by an ordinary reader as claiming that the corporation had three men murdered to protect its business interests, or that there was a reasonable ground for suspicion.

At the high court on Wednesday, Mr Justice Nicklin dismissed the claim as he ruled that those parts of the book did not refer to the corporation. “Only individuals can carry out acts of murder or poisoning, only individuals can be motivated to do so to protect their business interests,” he said.

ENRC, which was publicly listed in London in 2007, was founded in Kazakhstan by three central Asian oligarchs, Alexander Machkevitch, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov. The latter died last year.

They were not part of the legal action and challenged any suggestion that there were grounds to suspect them of wrongdoing in connection with alleged corruption or the deaths of three men who were referred to in the case.

Two of the dead men – James Bethel and Gerrit Strydom, former ENRC employees – were potential witnesses in an ongoing UK Serious Fraud Office corruption inquiry into ENRC. Their bodies were found in separate motel rooms during a motorbike trip in the US in 2015. Their causes of death were recorded as malaria.

The body of the third man, Andre Bekker, was found inside his burned-out Audi in South Africa the following year.

Adrienne Page QC, for ENRC, argued that the book gave the impression that ENRC had the three men murdered, adding: “The reader would understand that the murders were carried out at the behest of the claimant in order to protect its dirty secrets.”

But lawyers for Burgis and HarperCollins argued that the parts of the book in the claim did not refer to ENRC. Andrew Caldecott QC said: “The question is whether the suspicious nature of the deaths would be linked by the ordinary reader to individuals, rather than a company. If it is only individuals, then the claim fails.”

ENRC was ordered to pay £50,000 in legal costs.

The result comes as a boost for HarperCollins after it was sued in a separate case relating to the former FT Moscow correspondent Catherine Belton over her book, Putin’s People.

Cases brought by several Russian oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, were settled with apologies and amendments made to the book.

Speaking on Wednesday after the ENRC case was dismissed, HarperCollins’ publishing director, Arabella Pike, said England’s legal system made it very hard to publish books of the type written by Burgis and Belton. “We need reform to the law in this country badly,” she said.

Burgis connected the case to the war in Ukraine and the renewed focus on the activities of oligarchs from the former USSR. “What is happening in Ukraine is a brutal, bloody new front in a war that has been going on for a long time, and that is the war against democracy waged by kleptocrats, those who rule through corruption, whether it be in central Africa or the former Soviet Union,” he said.

A spokesperson for ENRC said: “The allegations made by HarperCollins, Financial Times and Tom Burgis are completely false and continue to cause damage to the company’s reputation. We are considering our options following today’s judgment.”


Ben Quinn

The GuardianTramp

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