The paper inaccurately reported that Yelena Baturina – the billionaire wife of the sacked mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov – had purchased Witanhurst, a 65-room Georgian-style property in leafy Highgate. She had bought it via an offshore “front” company and was planning large-scale renovations, it added.
Baturina denied ownership and sued. On Sunday the News International title acknowledged that two September 2009 articles – “Russians’ £100m London palace” and “Bunker billionairess digs deep” – were incorrect. It agreed to pay the businesswoman, who is based in London, damages and costs, apologising on page 32.
Baturina is one of a string of super-rich Russians who are increasingly turning to the English courts to settle their grievances, some only tenuously linked to the UK. Britain’s most colourful private litigation battle is currently taking place in the high court’s new Rolls building, where Boris Berezovsky is suing his fellow oligarch and former friend Roman Abramovich.
Berezovsky claims that the Chelsea FC owner cheated him out of more than $5bn and forced him to sell his interests in a Russian oil firm at cut price. Abramovich denies the claim. He insists that payments to Berezovsky were made reluctantly in return for Berezovsky’s svengali-like influence over president Boris Yeltsin during Russia’s lawless 1990s.
Speaking via her lawyers, Baturina on Monday claimed she was “astonished” a British newspaper could publish an “obvious lie” about her. She added: “It sparked a wave of negative press attention directed towards me by European and Russian media which was extremely unpleasant.”
Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, fired Luzhkov late last year, in a move apparently designed to bring the mayor’s vast business empire and its associated revenues into the Kremlin’s pocket. Russia’s state-owned TV ran a series of damaging stories about Luzhkov, including allegations that Baturina – the capital’s most successful property developer – had profited from her husband’s political career.
Embarrassing US diplomatic cables leaked last December alleged that Luzhkov sat on top of a “pyramid of corruption” in Moscow, with bureaucrats, gangsters and Russia’s spy agencies all regularly taking kickbacks. Luzhkov denies the allegation. For her part, Baturina vehemently rejects claims that she accumulated her $1.2bn fortune off the back of Luzhkov’s job.
During her husband’s tenure as mayor, Baturina frequently sued Russian newspapers and other publications. She won every single case heard in Moscow. Since Luzhkov lost his job, Baturina has moved to London, where she now lives with her teenage daughters.
Her press secretary, Gennady Terebkov, said he hoped the case and Sunday Times apology would encourage “more responsible” journalism.
“Two years have gone by and still no one has released the names of the true owners of the mansion. Do not rule out the possibility that their names, which will eventually be made public, are well known,” he said, hinting that its real owner could be another household name.
On Monday, meanwhile, the Russian construction tycoon Sergei Polonsky announced he was suing Alexander Lebedev for libel in the British courts. The action came after Lebedev – the owner of the London Evening Standard and Independent newspapers – punched Polonsky in the face on a prime-time Russian TV talk-show.
Polonsky’s lawyer Andrew Stephenson claimed Lebedev had made matters worse by justifying the attack in subsequent interviews with the British media. “What Mr Lebedev seems to be saying in effect is that Mr Polonsky got what he deserved,” Stephenson told Reuters, adding that his client wanted compensation for defamation.
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