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Putin’s warlord planned new legal attack on BBC with UK government help

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who leads the notorious Wagner army, sought to attack the BBC two months before the Ukraine invasion

Jim Fitzpatrick square
Jim Fitzpatrick
21 March 2023, 10.54am

Yevgeny Prigozhin, sanctioned head of the Wagner mercenary army and close ally of Vladimir Putin, was planning to sue the BBC with UK government help


Mikhail Svetlov, Getty Images

Vladimir Putin’s private warlord, the sanctioned oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, was planning to launch a legal attack on the BBC with the same UK government help that had enabled him to sue another British journalist, openDemocracy can reveal.

Prigozhin’s solicitors at London firm Discreet Law received UK government permission to target Eliot Higgins of investigative website Bellingcat in August 2021. By December they were preparing to escalate action with new permission from the government to sue the BBC as well.

openDemocracy revealed in January how a department of the UK Treasury, the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI), had previously authorised lawyers from Discreet Law to receive payment direct from the sanctioned oligarch in Russia, and had even approved business class flights to St Petersburg for them to meet him and stay in five-star accommodation.

The revelations provoked a political storm, with Labour demanding answers from the government on why and how it had enabled Prigozhin’s legal attack to proceed, describing it as a “perfect example” of a so-called ‘SLAPP’ (a ‘strategic lawsuit against public participation’).

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The case against the BBC, regarding a story it published in August 2021, required a new licence application, which the solicitors were preparing even as global tension over Ukraine grew in December 2021.

They were seeking a quote for fees from a clerk representing leading barristers at 5RB, a London chambers that specialises in media law – which had also worked on the Higgins case – to advise on strategy for the new case. And this time the solicitors who had met Prigozhin in Russia wanted the 5RB barristers to make the journey themselves.

An email sent from Discreet Law to 5RB on 8 December requests a quote from two of their renowned libel experts: Justin Rushbrooke KC and Gervase de Wilde. Rushbrooke famously represented Cliff Richard in his landmark privacy case against the BBC and Yorkshire Police.

The emails between Discreet Law and 5RB were shared with Prigozhin’s Russian law firm and unearthed in a vast cache of hacked material from Russian organisations now held by a US non-profit organisation. They lay out the proposed strategy, and the plan to seek further government assistance.

“We need quotes for the above in order to define the scope of work for the purposes of making an application to OFSI for a licence,” the initial approach asks.

Lawyers at 5RB are asked how much it would cost “to take instructions and advise on a potential claim in libel against the BBC”, and to travel to meet Prigozhin in Russia: “Counsel are already aware of the background of the offending article… Please include a quote for travelling to Russia to take instructions from our client.”

Prigozhin is the head of private mercenary army Wagner, which has been responsible for much of the slaughter in the current war in Ukraine. He has recently boasted of his role at the forefront of Russia’s war campaign. But in 2021 he denied any connection to the group, which had been active in killing throughout Africa and the Middle East on behalf of Russian objectives.

His pursuit of UK journalists who had exposed his connection to Wagner and its crimes was part of his wider strategy of seeking to undermine the sanctions against him. Sanctions are intended to stop such individuals from conducting business in the UK, but legal cases can proceed under government licence.

Please include a quote for travelling to Russia to take instructions from our client

Communication between Discreet Law and 5RB continued throughout December 2021, with growing frustration from the solicitors at Discreet Law at a delay in receiving a quote for the work from the 5RB barristers.

In an email sent on 20 December, the founder of Discreet Law, Roger Gherson, noted the barristers had “extended themselves” to get the claim against Higgins filed on time, but asked them to explain why they had yet to provide a quote for the new work, making clear Prigozhin wished to get legal action under way as soon as possible.

“The clients are struggling with why this is taking so long? We requested this on the 8th of December’s its now the 20th [sic],” he wrote.

He added: “I understand we are to receive the quote today or tomorrow AM but can you please ensure we receive this as we really can’t have any further delay. We wish to inform the client of the quote before the Christmas shut down and make the necessary license application in the hope that it can be processed early in the new year. I understand that Counsel have been occupied with other matters and really extended themselves to get the claim in in time, but because of the license and other requirements the client wishes to advance matters ASAP.”

A few minutes after sending this email, Gherson forwarded the correspondence to Prigozhin’s Russian lawyers, with an invitation to discuss the apparent lack of progress.

It’s not clear if a quote was provided or a licence sought. Russia invaded Ukraine two months later. No claim against the BBC was filed in the UK, and the corporation told openDemocracy it had not received any threats of legal action from Prigozhin.

It did confirm, however, that legal cases were launched in Russia by two of the mercenaries identified in the report against “the journalists and BBC entities”.

The UK’s legal system must not be allowed to be used to bully or intimidate those speaking out in the public interest

Susan Coughtrie, director of the Foreign Policy Centre

The BBC had uncovered evidence of Wagner’s activities in Libya, with material gathered from a tablet device recovered from the battlefield that appeared to belong to one of Prigozhin’s mercenaries. The investigation focused on two particular Wagner fighters, war crime allegations, and included details that connected Prigozhin to the group.

One of the fighters identified from a photograph the BBC obtained, Vladimir Andanov, was accused in the report of suspected involvement in extra-judicial killings on behalf of Wagner in eastern Ukraine. He denied he was the person in the photograph. His legal action against the BBC ended when he was killed last year, fighting with Russian forces in Ukraine.

The second claim by Fedor Metelkin, identified in the report as a Wagner member, was dismissed by the court in Russia.

The BBC told openDemocracy that it “stands by the article and accompanying documentary”, adding: “We note that since the article was published Mr Prigozhin has confirmed he was directly involved in creating the Wagner Group.”

Susan Coughtrie, director of the Foreign Policy Centre and a leading campaigner for legal reform in this area, said the latest revelations “underscore the urgency” for the government to bring forward the anti-SLAPP reforms it has promised and update how OFSI operates.

“The UK’s legal system must not be allowed to be used to bully or intimidate those speaking out in the public interest, not least when it pertains to evidence that points directly to why those sanctions should be imposed in the first place,” she said.

In a statement, Discreet Law said: “As you will appreciate, as lawyers we are unable to disclose confidential information relating to our former clients. It is public knowledge that Discreet Law LLP acted for Mr Prigozhin and our position is that at all times we complied fully with our legal and professional obligations.”

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