Judge orders TBIJ to prepare defence in Kazakh libel case

A high court judge has ordered the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to prepare a full legal defence against a libel claim brought by a little-known UK company which held nearly $8bn in total assets as part of a complex group structure linked to the former dictator of Kazakhstan.

Thursday’s hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London was the first in a lawsuit filed almost a year ago over a TBIJ article reporting that a huge wealth of Kazakh assets were being held by a UK company called Jusan Technologies. It was part of a sprawling network of companies that stretched across the Middle East, Europe, US and Asia and that had previously involved the Nazarbayev Fund, set up by and chaired at the time by Nursultan Nazarbayev, a notorious autocrat who left office in 2019.

Jusan Technologies claims TBIJ made defamatory and incorrect allegations about it and rejects any suggestion that Nazarbayev controlled or could benefit from the assets held by it. It is also suing the Daily Telegraph, which partnered with TBIJ on its investigation, and openDemocracy, a not-for-profit newsroom that also published an article on Jusan.

A coalition of non-governmental organisations in Europe has described the case against TBIJ as a SLAPP – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – which is a type of abusive libel action used by the rich and powerful to shut down public scrutiny. Jusan’s representatives deny that the suit is a SLAPP and say the company is legitimately defending its reputation.

Growing concerns over SLAPP lawsuits being used against journalists and whistleblowers has led to the government recently proposing legislation that would make it easier to dismiss these kinds of cases early on if they relate to allegations of economic crime.

Jusan, which had one employee and no proper office in London at the time the articles were published, said it had no connection with Nazarbayev and that its sole purpose was to support educational institutions in Kazakhstan. The ownership of Jusan Technologies was transferred from foundations established in Kazakhstan and to a US non-profit organisation in 2021.

High court judge Mr Justice Nicklin decided on Thursday that TBIJ and the Telegraph should submit a full defence in preparation for a trial, which could take place as early as next year. In openDemocracy’s case, a judge will first determine the “meaning” of one of its articles in defamation law at a preliminary stage.

Mr Justice Nicklin also ordered that precise details of the alleged financial loss suffered by the company as a result of the articles would have to be made publicly available.

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