The latest on Russian libel tourism

6

July 23, 2015 by AK

Up until 2012, Vladimir Slutsker (Sloutsker) was a second-tier Russian oligarch. He was a member of the Federation Council, a senator in colloquial usage, in 2002-2010. His detractors claim that Slutsker largely owed his success to being good at obtaining “protection” for his businesses from high-placed government officials, typically with backgrounds in intelligence.

Together with his wife Olga, known in Russia as the owner of the World Class gym chain, Slutsker bought a house in Kensington for £6 million in 2000. The Slutskers got divorced in 2009 and after a legal battle in London, Vladimir lost the house, then worth £40 million, to his ex in 2012. In the same year (or 2011 according to some sources) he left Russia and permanently settled in Israel.

Olga Romanova is an experienced Russian journalist, a professor of journalism at a leading university, and a human rights activist. She co-founded a movement called Rus’ Sidyaschaya, “Russia behind bars” or “Russia doing time,” seeking to reverse wrongful convictions and improve prison conditions. Her activism was triggered by the prosecution and conviction of her husband, Alexei Kozlov, on likely trumped-up embezzlement and laundering charges. Kozlov was jailed in 2008-11 and then again in 2012-13. Although the Russian Supreme Court quashed his conviction in 2011, Kozlov was re-convicted in 2012 and had to serve another year until the Supreme Court acquitted him on some of the charges.

Kozlov had managed one of Slutsker’s businesses for several years before charges were brought against him. About the time of Kozlov’s first arrest, in 2007, Olga Romanova accused Slutsker of orchestrating the judicial assault on Kozlov. In 2010 she was reported to file a formal complaint against Slutsker with the prosecutor-general’s office. When Kozlov was re-arrested in 2012, Romanova claimed that Slutsker had arranged for her husband to be murdered in custody.

Slutsker filed a libel suit in London in 2012 based on four instances of Romanova’a publlicizing these two allegations. There was much wrangling between the parties over the issues of jurisdiction and service of process. In March 2015 the judge ruled that England and Wales was the proper place for the claim and that valid service had taken place.

At that point, Romanova declined to take part in further proceedings. In July the judge entered a default judgment , ordering her to pay £110,000. The court never got down to examining the merits of Slutsker’s and Romanova’s claims. I cannot come up a good reason for Romanova’s sudden refusal to defend herself. It seems to me that she would have invoked the “fair comment” principle to shield herself. She has said somewhere that she expected police investigators who worked on the Kozlov case (and feel bad about their involvement, apparently) to testify for her, but now they are not allowed to travel abroad.

I don’t quite agree with this logic, but that’s a minor puzzle compared with the fact that it was allowed to proceed in London. I’m not questioning the judge’s finding of Slutsker’s substantial link to the UK despite his never being a resident. Rather, I am looking at the big picture, a purely Russian dispute between two non-UK residents getting resolved in London.


6 comments »

  1. Sarah Hurst says:

    I agree with everything you say here, it is absurd that this case should be heard in the UK, where the judge clearly has no understanding of the context of what went on, and sees it all through the prism of people behaving as they would in the UK, and laws being applied as they would in the UK. Also, indeed why did Romanova not take part, since she is active supporting prisoners, surely it would be logical to participate in her own case.

    • AK says:

      Libel tourism at an end, say lawyers following high court rulings,” The Guardian wrote in October 2013.

    • Tim Newman says:

      it is absurd that this case should be heard in the UK, where the judge clearly has no understanding of the context of what went on, and sees it all through the prism of people behaving as they would in the UK, and laws being applied as they would in the UK.

      Presumably both parties think they’ll get justice more readily from a British judge who knows nothing than a Russian judge who knows everything. I don’t have a problem with daft Russian libel cases being heard in the UK, provided either or both parties pay for the courts’ time (which I think they do, it doesn’t fall to the taxpayer).

      By the way:

      that London and Wales was the proper place for the claim

      I assume you meant England and Wales?

      • Sarah Hurst says:

        I don’t think that Olga Romanova agreed on this being heard in the UK, or did she?

        • AK says:

          No, her lawyers fought tooth and claw against that but lost. That’s when Romanova backed out of the proceedings. Under the current UK libel law, Slutsker would have probably been told to sue elsewhere but the amended law does not apply retroactively to 2012.

      • AK says:

        Thanks for spotting that. I probably wanted to replace “England and Wales” with “London” but forgot to delete “Wales.”

        It’s not that both parties wanted the case to be tried in London. Slutsker, the complainant, certainly did — otherwise, why sue in England? Romanova’s lawyers tried to have the lawsuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and failed. The problem I have with this case is that Russian political activists should not fear getting fined in London for things they at home. Sometimes, to bolster popular support, make statements they believe to be true but won’t be able to back up in a courtroom.

        Reading the judge’s opinion, I’ve just realized the UK has raised the jurisdiction hurdle but it does not apply to lawsuits brought before 2014.

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