LONDON (Reuters) - A businessman won the right on Thursday to sue Russia’s richest man for $4 billion (2 billion pounds) in court, after a judge ruled he might be assassinated or held on trumped-up charges if he tried to bring the case in Russia.
The ruling, in which the judge cast doubt on the integrity of the Russian legal system, could further strain relations between Moscow and London, which have been at a post-Cold War low.
Israel-based Russian entrepreneur Michael Cherney accuses his former business partner Oleg Deripaska of failing to honour a business deal worth billions.
Deripaska, an aluminium baron and one of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs, denies the allegations and says the case should be heard in Russia.
High Court Judge Christopher Clarke accepted Cherney’s argument that his life and freedom would be at risk in Russia, and a trial there might not be fair.
“I am persuaded that the risks inherent in a trial in Russia — assassination, arrest on trumped-up charges and lack of a fair trial — are sufficient to make England the forum in which the case can most suitably be tried in the interests of both parties and the ends of justice,” the judge ruled.
There was “a significant risk” that Cherney, 56, would not obtain a trial in Russia “unaffected by improper interference by state actors and that substantial justice may not be done”.
Cherney says he agreed in 2001 to exchange shares in the Russian aluminium company SibAl for cash and a 20 percent share in a new Russian aluminium giant, Rusal. He accuses Deripaska of failing to honour the deal.
A Deripaska spokesman said he rejected the “vexatious” claims, but believed they should be heard in Russian court.
“We are surprised by the court ruling that the case should be heard in the English rather than the Russian courts, given the fact that the judge concluded that Russia is the natural forum to hear the case,” the spokesman said.
“We disagree with the pejorative claims made about Russian courts in the judgement.”
Cherney’s lawyer, Geoffrey Vos, said the case should be heard in Britain because the deal was struck in London, where both men have business interests. Like many of Russia’s richest men, Deripaska owns a home in London.
London “was somewhere readily accessible to both parties and may properly be regarded as neutral ground. Both parties have confidence in English law and the English courts,” Vos said.
Relations between Britain and Russia have been strained for several years and there is little sign of improvement.
Britain accuses Moscow of harbouring the main suspect in the murder of a former KGB agent poisoned in London, and British oil companies say Russian authorities have bullied them to push them out of giant deals negotiated in the 1990s.
Additional reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov in Moscow