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Berezovsky Wins Poison Libel Case

Berezovsky leaving the High Court in London on Wednesday after winning a libel case against state-run VGTRK for implicating him in Litvinenko?€™s death. Alastair Grant

Former Kremlin powerbroker Boris Berezovsky on Wednesday won a libel case against a Russian state television channel that accused him of organizing the 2006 poisoning death of former security agent Alexander Litvinenko.

The Foreign Ministry said the British court's ruling would not spark repercussions from Russia.

State-owned media company All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting, or VGTRK, claimed in a program aired on its RTR Planeta television channel in April 2007 that Berezovsky had orchestrated Litvinenko's death and accused him of providing British authorities with false evidence to obtain asylum in 2003.

The program featured a silhouetted man identified as "Pyotr" as its primary source to back up its claims.

Berezovsky — who was known as a kingmaker during Boris Yeltsin's presidency but is now wanted on multiple criminal charges at home — filed a libel lawsuit in May 2007 at the High Court in London against VGTRK and Vladimir Terlyuk, whom he claimed was a Russian intelligence agent posing as "Pyotr" in the broadcast.

Terlyuk testified during the trial that he was not "Pyotr."

But Judge David Eady said in Wednesday's ruling that Terlyuk and "Pyotr" were the same person and RTR had no grounds to implicate Berezovsky in Litvinenko's death.

"There is no evidence before me that Mr. Berezovsky had any part in the murder of Mr. Litvinenko. Nor, for that matter, do I see any basis for reasonable grounds to suspect him of it," Eady said, according to Reuters.

The court awarded £150,000 ($224,000) to Berezovsky, a sum that is to be split between VGTRK and Terlyuk.

VGTRK called the ruling illegal and vowed to appeal.

Zoya Matviyevskaya, a VGTRK legal representative in the case, complained that the lawsuit had not been heard by a jury, even though VGTRK had asked for a jury when the trial began a month ago, and the verdict had been delivered in the absence of VGTRK representatives.

VGTRK was barred from the trial after refusing to disclose its sources of information to the court, a decision that it has criticized as a violation of internationally recognized principles of free media. VGTRK has also filed an appeal against the court's decision to bar its representatives from the trial.

"VGTRK will appeal against this court ruling too, all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights," Matviyevskaya said, Interfax reported.

Berezovsky made no public comments after Wednesday's ruling, saying only in a statement released by his lawyers that the RTR broadcast had sought to mislead British investigators in their inquiry into Litvinenko's death.

"I am pleased that the court, through its judgment, has unequivocally demolished RTR's claims," he said.

Litvinenko, a critic of then-President Vladimir Putin and a former Federal Security Service officer, died in London in November 2006 after coming into contact with the highly toxic and rare polonium-210 isotope. Shortly before his death, which led to an all-time low in relations between Moscow and London, Litvinenko accused the Kremlin of orchestrating his murder.

British police have named Andrei Lugovoi, another former Russian security agent who met with Litvinenko shortly before he fell ill, as the prime suspect in the poisoning. Russia has refused to extradite Lugovoi, now a State Duma deputy, to Britain to face trial.

Diplomatic tensions with Britain, which began soon after Berezovsky fled there in 2000 and started criticizing the Kremlin, eased last year as Moscow moved to "reset" relations with the United States and its allies.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov told The Moscow Times that the court ruling on Wednesday would not prompt an immediate diplomatic response because all avenues of appeal have not been exhausted yet.

"This is a legal process going in the courts between a private person, Berezovsky, and a Russian company. There is nothing here for diplomats to say at the moment," he said.

State Duma Deputy Sergei Markov, a senior member of Putin's United Russia party, also dismissed the notion of a possible flare-up in tensions.

"The effect of this ruling cannot be compared with the refusals of British courts to extradite Berezovsky and Zakayev to Russia," he said.

The Prosecutor General's Office has sought the extradition of Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev to face terrorism and other charges at home. Like Berezovsky, Zakayev has received asylum in Britain.

Berezovsky was able to sue VGTRK in London because RTR Planeta is available to British satellite viewers. In his lawsuit, he said the program's allegations had damaged his business reputation and threatened his asylum status and personal safety.

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