Metal Alloy plant. Worker in orange jacket and white hardhat on train with Eurasian Resources Group (ENRC). Alexey Rezvykh / Alamy Stock Photo
The undersigned organisations express their serious concern at the legal proceedings that have been filed in a UK court against journalist and author Tom Burgis, his publisher HarperCollins, and his employer the Financial Times (FT). Two lawsuits have been filed by Kazakh multinational mining company, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), for what it claims are a series of “untrue” and “highly damaging” allegations made by the defendants about the company.
The first lawsuit, against Burgis and HarperCollins, centres around multiple passages in Burgis’ 2020 book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World. The second lawsuit, against Burgis and the FT, relates to two FT articles by Burgis, eleven Twitter posts by Burgis based on the articles, and an FT podcast in which Burgis was interviewed about his investigation.
“We are extremely concerned that the lawsuits against Tom Burgis, HarperCollins, and the FT are Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs). SLAPPs are a form of legal harassment used by those with deep pockets to silence journalists and other public watchdogs by exploiting intimidatingly long and expensive legal procedures,” the undersigned organisations said.
The lawsuits filed in London follow earlier legal suits by ENRC in US courts against HarperCollins seeking disclosure of wide-ranging information relating to the publication of Burgis’ book and newspaper articles published in the FT. In the London lawsuits, ENRC claims that the publications defamed the company, including by falsely suggesting that it was involved in the deaths of two whistleblowers (former ENRC employees), whose bodies were found at a motel in Missouri in 2015.
A criminal investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office into alleged corruption within ENRC opened in 2013 and is ongoing. It is understood to be focused on allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption around the acquisition of substantial mineral assets in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. No charges have yet been brought. ENRC denies all allegations.
Since the SFO announced its investigation, ENRC has initiated a wave of more than 18 legal proceedings in the US and the UK against journalists, lawyers, investigators, contractors, and a former SFO official and the SFO itself. In June 2021, twenty-two organisations issued a statement condemning the ENRC’s lawsuits against public watchdogs.
“The lawsuits against Burgis, HarperCollins, and the FT are the latest in a deluge of litigation brought by ENRC as it attempts to robustly challenge corruption allegations,” the organisations said. “We are extremely concerned that ENRC’s legal tactics are a further attempt to silence those who interrogate any possible links between the company and incidents that warrant proper public scrutiny.”
“We urge the UK government to consider measures, including legal measures, that would protect journalists and other public watchdogs from abusive legal actions that are aimed at silencing them,” the organisations concluded. “Our democracy relies on their ability to hold power to account.”
The legal proceedings against Burgis, HarperCollins, and the FT were filed at the High Court of Justice of England and Wales on 27 August. The first hearing has yet to be scheduled.
Note to editors: ENRC was listed on the London Stock Exchange until 2013, when it became embroiled in controversy over governance issues and went private. Today it is owned by Eurasian Resources Group registered in Luxembourg. The ‘Trio’ who own the majority shares in ENRC (now ERG) are Alexander Machkevitch, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov. Mr Ibragimov died in February 2021. The Kazakh state owns an estimated 40 percent of the company.
Blueprint for Free Speech
Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS)
Index on Censorship
Justice for Journalists Foundation
Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116855″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text](7 June 2021, London) – A legal case currently before the UK courts highlights the egregious tactics being used by Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation Limited (ENRC), a privately-owned Kazakh multinational mining company, in what appear to be deliberate attempts to escape public scrutiny.
The civil case brought by ENRC is against the UK’s anti-corruption authority, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), and ENRC’s former lawyers, Dechert LLP. The SFO launched a formal corruption investigation into ENRC in April 2013, but has yet to bring any charges. The investigation has become one of the SFO’s longest running and most complicated cases. ENRC denies all allegations.
ENRC is suing the SFO for misfeasance in public office claiming the SFO mishandled the corruption investigation, induced Dechert lawyers to breach duties owed to ENRC, and leaked information to the media. ENRC claims Dechert and its partner, Neil Gerrard, were negligent and acted in breach of contract and fiduciary duties, including by leaking confidential information to the press. The SFO, Gerrard and Dechert all deny the allegations.
This is by no means an isolated example of ENRC using the courts in a way that discourages scrutiny and shuts down accountability. Since the SFO announced its investigation, ENRC has initiated a wave of more than 16 legal proceedings in the US and the UK against journalists, lawyers, investigators, contractors, a former SFO official and the SFO itself. The SFO has had to divert significant staff time and funding away from its corruption investigation to respond to the claims brought by ENRC.
The 22 undersigned human rights, freedom of expression and anti-corruption organisations are concerned that ENRC’s tactics are either a deliberate attempt to undermine the SFO’s corruption investigation and to silence those seeking to expose the company’s misdeeds or will serve to do so.
The groups believe that ENRC’s legal tactics include Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs, a form of legal harassment used by powerful individuals and companies as a means of silencing public watchdogs, including journalists, peaceful protesters and whistleblowers. SLAPPs typically involve long and costly legal procedures, or the threat thereof, to intimidate and harass critics into silence.
The conduct of corruption investigations by state officials and others must, of course, be lawful and follow appropriate procedures, the undersigned organisations said, but they nonetheless raised concerns about what appeared to be vexatious litigation by ENRC.
“ENRC’s campaign of legal action across two jurisdictions targeting more than a dozen people and other entities seems a deliberate attempt to shift the focus away from ENRC’s alleged corruption to those conducting legitimate investigations, whether journalists or public authorities. If such efforts succeed, not only could it derail proper public scrutiny of the original allegations, but it risks setting a damaging example for how others can thwart corruption investigations and shut down public discourse,” the organisations said.
A recent legal suit by ENRC was initiated in September 2020 in US courts against publisher HarperCollins seeking disclosure of wide-ranging information relating to the publication of a book, Kleptopia, and newspaper articles published in the Financial Times by investigative journalist Tom Burgis. The book and articles investigate possible corruption and other alleged offences by ENRC and its owners, notably Alexander Machkevitch, one of the three oligarchs (known as the Trio), who – alongside the Kazakh state – own the controlling stake in ENRC.
Shortly after initiating the US action, ENRC’s lawyers also initiated legal action in the UK, sending a Letter Before Claim notifying HarperCollins UK, the Financial Times and Burgis of intended court proceedings for defamation. The case has yet to be issued. In January 2021, ENRC followed with another legal claim, this time against the SFO and John Gibson, a former SFO case controller, who led the investigation into ENRC, accusing him of leaking to the press, including to Burgis.
In a submission to the court, counsel for HarperCollins in the US described ENRC’s tactics as a “relentless campaign to squelch any coverage of its corruption.” She added, “ENRC has undertaken a campaign to silence all who dare expose its misdeeds, through initiating or threatening legal action….It has pursued its critics (even law enforcement) with numerous lawsuits…. HarperCollinsUS is now the latest target.”
Court documents filed in the numerous legal proceedings reveal not only the aggressive legal tactics, but also allege unlawful surveillance and spying by agents linked to ENRC, including of Burgis and current or former SFO officials.
“The UK and US courts will need to decide the merits of these cases, but we are deeply troubled by the chilling effect this wave of legal action has on legitimate investigative and anti-corruption work by journalists, law enforcement officials, and others,” the civil society groups said. “We cannot permit powerful actors with deep pockets to silence their critics, thwart legitimate investigations and target those whose efforts are crucial to ending corruption.”
The groups called on the UK government to urgently consider measures, including legal measures, that could be put in place to protect public watchdogs and journalists from abusive legal actions that are intent on silencing them. The rule of law, protection of human rights, and democracy rely on their ability to hold power to account, said the organisations.
They further urged the SFO to swiftly move forward its investigation into ENRC. “If the SFO has evidence of corruption to charge ENRC then it should do so. Lengthy corruption investigations with no end in sight provide fertile ground for dirty tactics against journalists, whistle-blowers, and other critics to flourish,” the groups said.
Notes to editors:
ENRC was listed on the London Stock Exchange until 2013, when it became embroiled in controversy over governance issues and its purchase of disputed mining concessions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It went private and today its ultimate parent company is Eurasian Resources Group S.à.r.l., registered in Luxembourg. The ‘Trio’ who own the majority shares in ENRC (now ERG) are Alexander Machkevitch, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov. Mr Ibragimov died in February 2021.
Dechert took over an internal investigation initiated by ENRC in 2010 into alleged corruption by company officials in Kazakhstan and later in Africa. ENRC abruptly fired Dechert on 27 March 2013, just before it was due to report to the SFO about its activities in Africa. In April 2013, the SFO launched a formal corruption investigation into ENRC.
In March 2020, Index on Censorship partnered with Justice for Journalists Foundation to keep track of attacks on media freedom under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Four months on and the project has recorded more than 230 physical and verbal assaults, detentions and arrests and fines around the world. Authoritarian governments are increasingly using the pandemic to clamp down on media freedom. The largest number of incidents are in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Here associate editor Mark Frary talks to JFJ’s director Maria Ordzhonikidze about why media freedom is in decline in the region.
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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]8 August: Index on Censorship welcomes a ruling by a Russian court temporarily halting the deportation of independent journalist Khudoberdi Nurmatov, better known by his pen name Ali Feruz. The decision follows a European Court of Human Rights order to delay the deportation until it can rule on the journalist’s appeal.
Index calls on the Russian authorities to allow accept Nurmatov’s asylum application and ensure he is treated safely.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”94957″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Journalist Khudoberdi Nurmatov, who works for independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, is set to be deported back to Uzbekistan, where it is feared he will be tortured.
“Deportation to Uzbekistan puts his life at serious risk. If sent back Nurmatov faces a long prison sentence under cruel conditions, including torture. We call on Russia to stop the deportation and accept Nurmatov’s asylum application,” Hannah Machlin, manager for Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project, said.
A Moscow court ruled on 1 August 2017 that Nurmatov (also known as Ali Feruz) violated immigration laws. He is currently being held in a deportation centre in Moscow where he faces immediate expulsion from the country. In May 2016 and in February 2017, Russia refused to grant the journalist temporary asylum.
In 2008, Novaya Gazeta reported that Nurmatov was abducted by Uzbek security forces who demanded he provide information on his contacts. He was subsequently beaten and threatened. He later applied for asylum in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, but decided to flee to Russia in 2011, where he feared extradition. Because of his refusal to work for Uzbek security forces, friends and supporters are concerned that he could be abducted or tortured.
According to his lawyer Daniil Khaimovich, on 2 August Feruz attempted to commit suicide in a hallway at the courthouse. The journalist then told his lawyer: “I would rather die than return to Uzbekistan.”
Nurmatov has covered a wide range of topics at the paper including on abuse of power, LGBT issues and conditions of central asian immigrants in Russia.
“Ali is an extremely valuable asset as he’s been covering the migrant community in Russia that media normally can’t report on easily. He is committed to his work and shows real compassion to the problems he reports on. We can’t imagine losing him,” Anna Baydakova, a politics reporter for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, told Index on Censorship. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1502188585770-4b2b310d-e3a3-9″ taxonomies=”7349, 15″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][/vc_column][/vc_row]