Analysis

A setback for libel tourism

A decision to strike out a libel suit by Russian police Major Pavel Karpov against Hermitage Capital Management Founder, Bill Browder, is a promising development, says Josh Black.

Bill Browder, the main defendant in the case. Photo by World Economic Forum.

Bill Browder, the main defendant in the case.
Photo by World Economic Forum.

Earlier this year, a humble police Major accused of participating in the death of the Russian tax lawyer and celebrated anti-corruption icon Sergei Magnitsky launched a libel suit in the UK against Magnitsky’s employers. Pavel Karpov said comments aired on a Russian website, an op-ed by Bill Browder in Foreign Policy and in an interview with Browder by the BBC were defamatory, implicating him as they did in fraud against the Russian state, and the arrest and murder of Magnitsky, among other crimes (Karpov was accused of complicity in the death of Magnitsky, rather than actually having participated in the murder). The case was likely to cost many thousands of pounds, and indeed probably already has, given the number of accusatory letters back and forth.

Major Karpov certainly wouldn’t have been the first person from the Former Soviet Union to have enjoyed the protection of the British courts. Not long ago, the Kyiv Post was sued in London for supposedly libelling a Ukrainian oligarch, leading it to block its website from UK IP addresses. Yet, and to its eternal credit, the British courts on Monday threw out Karpov’s claim.

A number of legal issues swayed Mr Justice Simon. In his judgement, he referred to ‘a degree of artificiality’ in Karpov’s claim, given that this police officer had little reputation in Britain in the first place, and that his stated intention, of removing himself from the US Magnitsky List, would in no way be affected by the judgement. In any case, plenty of other sources contributed to Karpov’s ignomy, and Browder’s pronouncements could not be adduced as a source of these views.

The more interesting points lie outside of the conclusions of the judgement. First, the case had already been heard in Russia and thrown out by then-President Medvedev’s Human Rights Council. In contrast to the indictment and conviction of the dead Magnitsky under President Putin, this was a fine example of the Russian legal system’s ability to work when not tampered with.

Second, the source of funding for Karpov’s legal action can hardly have passed the smell test, although it did not directly contribute to the claim being thrown out. Unlike Boris Berezovsky, whose honest and dishonestly got wealth was almost impossible to separate, Karpov’s ability to fund his campaign through guaranteed bank loans is suspicious. It may not have been the case that the Russian state was attempting to undermine the US and possible UK or EU Magnitsky laws through the libel claim. However, it is not hard to believe that the person who guaranteed Karpov’s legal team was somehow indirectly affected by his friend’s infamy.

Earlier this year, historian Robert Service noted that the increasing volume of Russia-related cases in the Commercial High Court (now nearly 40% of cases heard there) showed Russian oligarchs preferred to use less violent means of settling disputes than they did in the early 1990s. Nonetheless, the courts exist to deliver fairness, not politics by other means. It is as well that Mr Justice Simon decided that Karpov’s connection to the UK – a handful of former classmates and an ex-girlfriend – was not sufficient to see the decision of a high court in his homeland overturned.

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