Judge Attacks Author Over Libel Tourism Allegation

By Times (UK) | by Dominic Kennedy
Thursday, June 16th, 2005 @ 9:53PM

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A JUDGE has vigorously defended England’s strict libel laws after awarding £30,000 to a Saudi billionaire and his sons over 23 copies of an American book imported into Britain.

Mr Justice Eady accused an author of trying to “cash in” on the publicity of being sued in London while refusing to come to court to justify her allegations. He made a declaration of falsity against Rachel Ehrenfeld, ordered her to pay costs and damages and to publish a correction and apology.

The judge has cleared the banker Khalid bin Mahfouz and his two sons of supporting terror, sponsoring terrorist atrocities and contributing millions to al-Qaeda.

But the battle between the sheikh and the writer is far from over. It has become a test case pitting Britain’s tradition of protecting reputations against America’s constitutional right to free speech.

Ms Ehrenfeld is countersuing in New York, accusing the Saudi of being a “libel tourist” using “repugnant” English laws to silence his critics and discourage investigation. “This case should be the last stop on Sheikh Mahfouz’s ‘libel tour’,” her lawyers have told the court.

The principle of freedom of expression and repressive libel laws being restricted to their own jurisdictions has won support from a media coalition, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The Authors Guild, Times Newspapers and the World Press Freedom Committee.

The book Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It was published in the United States but copies entered Britain through internet bookshops. The first chapter also appeared on a website.

The sheikh and his sons sued in England, where the family – whose wealth is estimated at $2.8 billion – owns five homes.

Mr Justice Eady ruled in favour of the sheikh last month and the full judgment was released yesterday. He observed that Ms Ehrenfeld had promised readers, in a new preface to her book, that she would prove her case in London, but never turned up and is refusing to pay damages or apologise.

The front cover of the paperback edition describes it as “the book the Saudis don’t want you to read”. The judge said: “It appears, therefore, that the defendants are trying to cash in on the fact libel proceedings have been brought against them in this jurisdiction without being prepared to defend them on their merits.”

Noting criticism of England’s “pro-plaintiff libel laws”, he added: “The purpose of this exercise is fairly obvious, namely to give the impression that any judgment of the English court is of little significance and does nothing to establish that the allegations are false. That is why it is so important to go through such allegations as have been made in order to demonstrate their lack of merit. It is not a purely formal process and the declaration of falsity is not an empty gesture.

“The defendants have had every opportunity to defend these proceedings. All they have been able to advance, it is said, is material of a flimsy and unreliable nature and the claimants have taken the trouble to demonstate its lack of merit.”

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Categories: Free Speech & Libel Tourism