A defamation lawsuit against former British spy Christopher Steele has been thrown out by a US court.
Russian billionaires Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan sued the ex-MI6 agent over a dossier he created which alleged links between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Kremlin.
Lawyers for the three men – the joint owners of Russian bank Alfa – claimed that as a result, Mr Steele had defamed them in the dossier which BuzzFeed News published in 2017.
They argued that Mr Steele was not protected under the US right to freedom of speech because of his British citizenship.
But Washington DC Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein dismissed this claim as “ironic” in his decision earlier this week.
He also noted that the billionaires all held Russian citizenship but had chosen to bring their case before a US court.
The men had failed to prove that Mr Steele knew the information was false when he submitted the dossier to Fusion GPS – a Washington-based intelligence company that was investigating Mr Trump’s ties to Moscow during the election, he wrote.
He added: “Advocacy on issues of public interest has the capacity to inform public debate “and thereby furthers the purposes of the First Amendment, regardless of the citizenship or residency of the speakers.”
The ruling leaned heavily on anti-SLAPP laws, which prevent wealthy plaintiffs from using the courts to silence their critics. Mr Epstein was carefully to say, however, that the decision offered no ruling as to whether the claims in the dossier – including that an Alfa intermediary delivered “illicit cash” to Mr Putin while he was deputy mayor of Saint Petersburg – were true or false.
The judge dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning the billionaires’ only option for recourse is to appeal the decision. An attorney for Mr Steele told ABC News he hoped the decision would be a lesson to anyone who sought to intimidate his client.
Mr Steele has faced repeated attacks from Mr Trump since the dossier was published, making the 54-year-old a public figure after a life of relative anonymity. The president has referred to the dossier as “fake” and “phoney,” and earlier this month called Mr Steele a “low life”.
The former intelligence officer has kept a low profile as he fights off other legal challenges stemming from the dossier, including a libel charge in London from Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev. Mr Gubarev has also filed suit against BuzzFeed News.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies