Radiation murder libel payout for Boris Berezovsky
Wednesday 10 March 2010
Boris Berezovsky won £150,000 High Court libel damages today over claims on a Russian TV broadcast about the radiation poisoning murder of Alexander Litvinenko.
The 63-year-old Russian businessman, who was granted political asylum in the UK in September 2003, had sued over an April 2007 broadcast on the state-owned TV channel RTR Planeta, which is available by satellite in the UK.
During the hearing in London, Mr Justice Eady heard that the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (RTR), which has never suggested that what it broadcast was true, had declined to take part in the proceedings.
It left Vladimir Terluk, who Mr Berezovsky alleged was the silhouetted figure called Pyotr featured in the programme, "to face the music on his own", unrepresented by lawyers.
The judge, 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."
The court had heard that the cornerstone of the programme as a whole was to accuse Mr Berezovsky of the 2006 London murder of Mr Litvinenko.
The motive was said to be that Mr Litvinenko was a witness to a conspiracy in 2003 to avoid Mr Berezovsky's extradition and to obtain his political asylum by procuring false evidence from Mr Terluk that there was an FSB security service plot to kill Mr Berezovsky.
It was said on the programme that Mr Berezovsky had been party to threats to Mr Terluk's life.
The judge rejected Mr Terluk's claim 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."
He concluded: "I see no evidence at all of any risk to Mr Terluk's safety and welfare originating with Mr Berezovsky or his entourage."
He said the allegation was calculated to put Mr Berezovsky's refugee status at risk.
Mr Berezovsky, who now lives in Surrey, had told the court that Mr Litvinenko, whom he knew as Sasha, had twice saved his life, and their shared history as exiles and opponents of President Vladimir Putin and the FSB had cemented their friendship.
He said he was concerned about the damage which the "absolutely outrageous" allegation would cause to his reputation.
After the ruling, he said: "I have no doubt that, in making this programme, the purpose of RTR and the Russian authorities was to undermine my asylum status in the UK and to put the investigation of Sasha Litvinenko's murder on the wrong track.
"I am pleased that the court, through its judgment, has unequivocally demolished RTR's claims.
"I trust the conclusions of the British investigators that the trail leads to Russia, and I hope that one day justice will prevail."
Both RTR and Mr Terluk, who denied in court that he was Pyotr and pleaded justification, are jointly liable for the damages.
The judge said there were likely to be formidable obstacles in recovering the money.
"This may indeed be a matter of only peripheral interest to Mr Berezovsky. I doubt that he brought the proceedings to make money. It will be for him to decide whether it is worthwhile to attempt to enforce the award."
Although RTR was responsible for the content of the programme as a whole, the judge found that Mr Terluk was not personally responsible for any allegation that Mr Berezovsky was implicated in Mr Litvinenko's murder.
The judge said the award would have been higher if he was also compensating for the equally unfounded allegation that Mr Berezovsky was responsible.
In his ruling, Mr Justice Eady said that the programme, Vesti Nedeli - the equivalent of BBC's Newsnight - was probably seen by thousands in the UK.
He said that he had "no doubt" that Pyotr was indeed Mr Terluk.
He added: "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.
"He has been sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in his absence.
"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. I need to focus only upon the specific issues raised in this litigation. I merely recognise the realities.
"He does not have a settled 'general bad reputation'. There are contrasting views. None of this means that he is deprived of the right to sue these defendants in respect of the broadcast and, if successful, to recover damages by way of vindication."
He concluded that the allegation was serious and had gone uncorrected for about three years.
"Obviously, many people have fixed views about Mr Berezovsky and most will not change them as a result of this judgment.
"He is nevertheless entitled to his remedy as reflecting the court's clear and unequivocal finding, on the evidence, that the relevant allegations are false."
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