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March 10, 2010

Berezovsky wins libel action

Category: News

Eady J awards 150,000 GBP over Litvinenko murder claims


Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky today won his libel claim against Russian Television and Vladimir Terluk arising from allegations broadcast in a television programme that he was responsible for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Mr Berezovsky was represented by 5RB’s Desmond Browne QC and Matthew Nicklin.

The programme, available to view without subscription in the UK, included an interview with a man identified only as “Pyotr” who claimed he had been offered £40 million by Litvinenko, who worked for Berezovsky until his death, to falsely confess to being a KGB hitman ordered to kill Berezovsky with a poisoned ballpoint pen.

Pyotr had claimed that when he refused to take the bribe, he was drugged and then forced to make a false testimony used to strengthen Berezovsky’s asylum application in the UK. The underlying motive, Pyotr claimed, was to “prove” the oligarch would be in mortal danger if he returned to Russia.

In the same programme the presenter suggested that Litvinenko, who died from poisoning with radioactive polonium in London in November 2006, was killed at Berezovsky’s behest because Litvinenko was a witness to Berezovsky’s claim for political asylum.

Mr Berezovsky, giving evidence at trial, explained  his decision to bring the libel claim: “I cannot imagine a more offensive and damaging allegation. It would be damaging enough to allege merely that I bribed or drugged a man so as to force him to give false evidence in order to help me secure my asylum status; that I was accused of Sasha’s [Alexander Litvinenko’s] murder, and to think people may believe it to be true, was, and still is, deeply upsetting.”

Mr Justice Eady, who tried the case without a jury, said: “I can say unequivocally that there is no evidence before me that Mr Berezovsky had any part in the murder of Mr Litvinenko. Nor, for that matter, do I see any basis for reasonable grounds to suspect him of it.”

Terluk had been left to defend the libel action alone after the Russian Television and Radio Company refused to take part. Terluk denied being “Pyotr”, yet sought to establish that everything Pyotr said was true.

The Judge rejected that denial and Terluk’s claims that the alleged plot to procure from him false evidence was true, saying: “I am driven to conclude that the central allegation that is directly attributable to Mr Terluk in the programme is false.”

Eady J found that Mr Terluk was not personally responsible for any allegation that Mr Berezovsky was implicated in Mr Litvinenko’s murder, which was “the overall message conveyed by the programme”. The judge said the award would have been higher if he was also compensating for the unfounded allegation that Mr Berezovsky was responsible.

The Judge considered that it “would be unreal to ignore the fact that, in the eyes of many people, including Russian speakers living in this country, Mr Berezovsky has acquired the reputation of a criminal on the run from Russian justice.

“On the other hand, he is seen by others as a political dissident who is working for justice and democratisation. Many see the criminal proceedings against him as politically motivated…It is not for me to take sides in that wider debate.”

Eady J concluded that Berezovsky did not have “a settled ‘general bad reputation’” and was “entitled to his remedy as reflecting the court’s clear and unequivocal finding…that the relevant allegations are false.”