It never rains but it pours for the Tories. After the shambles of the last few days over Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs and Boris Johnson’s murky loans, comes the astonishing news that the Treasury gave the thumbs up to British lawyers acting for Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin to sue a Bellingcat journalist in the UK while the Russian oligarch was subject to sanctions.

Deep in the bowels of the Treasury is a department called the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI). According to explosive revelations today from OpenDemocracy, the OFSI team gave the go ahead to British lawyers – Discreet Law headed by Roger Gherson – to represent Prigozhin despite the fact that one of President Putin’s closest allies was under sanctions.

On behalf of Prigozhin, Discreet Law brought a libel case against Eliot Higgins, the founder of the investigative group Bellingcat based in the Netherlands, in 2021, because of his allegations that Prigozhin was involved with Wagner, the group of mercenaries now operating in Ukraine. 

 According to OpenDemocracy, the legal case went for Higgins personally, rather than Bellingcat, and relied on tweets written by Higgins linking to a Bellingcat investigation into Prigozhin. It also meant that Prigozhin could sue in the UK, where libel laws are harder to challenge for journalists, rather than in the Netherlands, where Bellingcat is based.

The case centred on claims made by Higgins that Prigozhin was linked to the Wagner group of mercenaries who have been active in Syria as well as many other African countries. Until recently Prigozhin has denied all links but, in September last year, he admitted he founded Wagner in 2014 . He also said that he had brought court cases against the journalist who had made the claims as “in any issue there should be room for sport”.

Discreet Law stopped representing Prigozhin in March last year, a month after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and was dismissed in May. Higgins, who has been left with legal costs of £70,000, recently tweeted: “This legal action was revenge for Bellingcat’s articles on Prigozhin being cited in EU sanctions against him. We were lucky his lawyers pulled out, otherwise it could have cost £100,000 to fight a case that is clearly illegitimate.”

So who is Prigozhin? Said to have spent his twenties in prison, he became a hotdog salesman on his release. Since then, he has mysteriously emerged to become one of the most powerful people in Putin’s inner circle. And since the case was dropped, Prigozhin has made no secret of his Wagner involvement: recruiting prisoners to serve in his battalions. 

And what of the Treasury involvement? Why did the OFSI give permission to Discreet Law for Prigozhin to pay for legal costs while assets were frozen? According to a Treasury spokesman today, the decision was made on costs alone – not the merits of the case: “Enabling people to defend themselves is part of a functioning democracy.” Say no more. 

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