A libel claim brought by a Kazakh mining giant over passages in a journalist’s book about “dirty money” and the deaths of three men has been dismissed by a High Court judge.
Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation sued Financial Times journalist Tom Burgis over his book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World, first published by HarperCollins in September 2020.
The corporation's lawyers said parts of two chapters would be understood as claiming that it had three men murdered to protect its business interests, or there was a reasonable ground for suspicion, as well as a suspected poisoning.
But on Wednesday, Mr Justice Matthew Nicklin ruled that those parts of the book did not refer to the corporation and dismissed the claim.
“Only individuals can carry out acts of murder or poisoning; only individuals can be motivated to do so to protect their business interests.” Mr Nicklin said.
He said the book did not claim that the three men were murdered, but that their deaths were suspicious.
The High Court in London was told that the bodies of former ENRC employees James Bethel and Gerrit Strydom were found in motel rooms during a motorbike trip in Missouri in May 2015.
Their causes of death were later recorded as malaria.
Andre Bekker’s body was found inside his burnt-out Audi in Johannesburg, South Africa, the following year.
“The many very serious allegations contained in the book, which refer to the claimant or its owners, shareholders or officers, are highly disputed”, said Adrienne Page, QC, the lawyer for for ENRC.
Ms Page said the book would be understood to mean that ENRC had the three men murdered to protect the corporation’s business interests or secrets.
“The deaths and the suspected poisoning are located in that part of the narrative where the secrets of the corporation are spilling, mouths are opening,” she told the court.
“Protecting the secrets of the corporation was the raison d’etre for the murders.”
Ms Page disputed that the book did not refer to the company, telling the court: “It is always the corporation that is in the firing line. “
“It may be accepted that killing a person, like every other action, cannot physically be carried out by a corporation. It must be carried out by individuals.
“The reader would understand that the murders were carried out at the behest of the claimant in order to protect its dirty secrets.
“The claimant was intimately bound up in the murders."
But lawyers for Burgis and HarperCollins said the parts of the book in the claim did not refer to ENRC.
“The question is whether the suspicious nature of the deaths would be linked by the ordinary reader to individuals, rather than a company," their barrister, Andrew Caldecott, QC, told the High Court.
“If it is only individuals, then the claim fails.”
Mr Caldecott said the focus of the book was not on the company or its board, but on suspect people.
“Murder is, if I may say so, not a way of generally doing business,” he said.
“We say that, in fact, in relation to the three murders, a person would come away thinking they need investigation," he said later.
“We say it would be wrong in fact to point a finger of reasonable suspicion at any one individual.”
Mr Nicklin found the allegations were not directed at any ENRC corporations.
He said the book repeatedly referred to a “trio” of businessmen from the former Soviet Union who founded ENRC, and who Mr Caldecott said had links to Russian criminal organisations.
“The book presents the claimants as little more than a front for the operations of the trio," Mr Nicklin said.
“If a reader pauses to consider the role played ENRC in these events, it was being used as a vehicle for those criminal acts … or was sometimes the target. It was not the organiser of it.
“Only individuals can carry out acts of murder or poisoning; only individuals can be motivated to do so to protect their business interests.”
As the claim was brought by ENRC, the company, this ruling meant the case could not continue.
“It would appear to me that the consequence of this ruling is that this claim must be dismissed and judgment must be entered for the defendant,” Mr Nicklin said.
ENRC was ordered to pay £50,000 ($67,000) in legal costs to Burgis and HarperCollins.
“I’m very pleased that this attempt to censor this book has failed,” the author said outside the court.
Asked if he had second thoughts over writing any more books, Burgis said: “I’m just a reporter, I’m going to keep on trying to report the stories.”
After the hearing, a representative for ENRC said the allegations were “completely false”, adding that the company was “considering its options” after the judgment.