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Tory MP grills government over decision to let warlord sue journalist

Conservative chair of Foreign Affairs Committee says she’s “aghast” and “appalled” at “shameful” granting of Prigozhin licence

Jim Fitzpatrick square
Jim Fitzpatrick
7 February 2023, 2.24pm

The government has “many more questions” to answer about its role in granting a sanctioned Russian warlord permission to sue a British journalist, the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee said yesterday.

Last month openDemocracy revealed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary army, circumvented UK sanctions with a government licence that let him hire London lawyers to sue Eliot Higgins of investigative website Bellingcat in 2021.

Speaking during a Westminster hearing on Prigozhin’s Wagner group, Tory MP Alicia Kearns said her committee was “aghast” at the treatment of Eliot Higgins and “would never want to see such shameful practices again”.

She told Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) minister Leo Docherty, who has responsibility for sanctions involving the Wagner group, that the committee wanted to understand the chain of command in the decision to grant Prigozhin permission to sue, querying whether it could have been done without ministerial oversight – as claimed last month by the prime minister’s official spokesperson.

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“I, as a former civil servant – because politicians are often attacked for criticising civil servants – am frankly appalled that any civil servant of any grade would see that name and not think that it had to go to a special adviser at minimum, if not a minister. So I do think there are many more questions that this committee will want to follow,” she told Docherty.

The case provoked fury in Parliament when details were revealed by openDemocracy last month. In response to an urgent question in the Commons, a minister defended the government’s position by arguing that “everyone has a right to legal representation”.

Prigozhin was, and remains, a “designated person” under UK sanctions. The legislation allows UK lawyers to act on behalf of such people, but if they want to receive any payment they need a government licence.

Prigozhin’s lawyers in the UK secured at least two separate licences, authorising them to receive money directly from the Putin ally in Russia, and even travel to St Petersburg to meet him face-to-face

At yesterday’s committee hearing, Labour’s Liam Byrne questioned Docherty on the judgement involved in granting these licences, pushing him to concede that access to legal services wasn’t an “unfettered right”.

openDemocracy had revealed emails between lawyers suggesting Prigozhin wasn’t concerned about winning compensation in his case, but in challenging the reported facts that, he felt, had led to the sanctions.

Byrne said the legal action was “deliberately aimed at undermining the sanctions” and pushed Docherty to justify the decision in the Treasury department to grant the licences.

“Here was a legal action that was deliberately aimed at undermining the sanctions… There was no general right to use the English legal system as a legal weapon against Eliot Higgins, so I’m not quite sure what is the constitutional position that needs revising,” he said.

Docherty replied: “I think that’s an interesting point. I think that will be taken into account when the Treasury review this.”

“Do you recognise that the convention on the right of legal representation is not an unfettered right?” asked Byrne.

“Of course I recognise that,” replied Docherty.

“Because there are constraints, someone has to make a judgement,” said Bryne.

“I recognise that, yes,” replied Docherty.

“And that judgement, in this case, we are told, was [by] a civil servant, though we are yet to learn if it went to a special adviser in the department, and we still don’t know whether a Treasury minister actually signed off,” said Byrne.

To which Docherty replied: “That’s exactly correct and I think the consideration is on whether or not that judgement is correct. That will be the specific focus of the consideration, so you correctly characterise that.”

Asked by Tory Bob Seely if he felt the judgement was correct, Docherty said it was “not for me to say”.

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