“Nobody goes anywhere with a bottle of poison. On the contrary, they go to court. ” GRU veteran and former commander of the Donbass militia Igor Bezler is suing Bellingcat. If he wins, the site may be blocked in Russia

The former commander of the People’s Militia of Donbass, Igor Bezler, who is also called a retired lieutenant colonel of the GRU by the Security Service of Ukraine, is suing Bellingcat in St. Petersburg, demanding that all mentions of his name be removed from its investigations. And at the end of last year, an application was submitted to the Investigative Committee of Russia to initiate a criminal case against Roman Dobrokhotov, who heads The Insider, a permanent co-author and media partner of Bellingcat in Russia. The Insider claims that the applicant Max van der Werff is also associated with the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff. Lilia Yapparova, a special correspondent of Meduza, has learned what caused these actions of the complainants and what they can actually achieve.

Just shot down a plane. Smokes 

On July 20, 2014, Ukrainian troops launched an offensive on Horlivka, a large city just 50 kilometers from Donetsk, the capture of which opened the way right into the heart of the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass.

The Ukrainian military was preparing to recapture Donetsk and Lugansk all summer – the people of Igor Bezler, also known as “Bes”, were holding back the advance of the Ukrainian troops. By July, the commander of the local militia – or, according  to the SBU, a former lieutenant colonel of the GRU who traveled to Donbass on the instructions of Russian military intelligence – was in control of Gorlovka and several neighboring towns. 

Four days before the start of the siege of Gorlovka, Bezler gave his first interview. RIA Novosti journalists found the commandant drinking their morning coffee – he was having breakfast on the street, continuing to distribute orders from the threshold of the former building of the Gorlovka militia; there was also a farewell ceremony for one of the dead soldiers. “The militia’s wife and his two young sons … are crying over the coffin,” the reporter added a remark after one of Bezler’s answers.

Bezler is asked how many Ukrainian planes were shot down by the Gorlovka militia, which had its own artillery. “Four,” the commandant replies without hesitation . And he explains that after each hit on the crash site, a group is sent to look for the ejected Ukrainian pilots: “We posted photos of pilot parachutes. We found six of them. “

The very next day, July 17, 2014, near Gorlovka, the fifth plane was shot down. According to the SBU, two minutes before the disaster, Bezler will receive a call from his subordinate Valery Stelmakh. The “demon” will pick up the phone for just a few seconds, distracting from another conversation.

Stelmakh – you can hear this in the  recording of the conversation that the SBU was listening to – breathes heavily and noisily. “The bird has flown to you,” he says excitedly. Bezler busily clarifies: did Stelmakh see a simple reconnaissance plane or a combat plane? “Not visible behind the clouds: very strong,” the subordinate replies. “Everything, I understood, I accepted,” the “Demon” calms down and orders to pass the report further along the chain: “Announce upward.”

In just 20 minutes, it follows from the wiretaps of the Ukrainian special services, Bezler will call himself – a man with a Russian phone number, whom the SBU identified as an officer of the GRU Vasily Geranin. “Just shot down a plane. <…> I fell for Yenakiyevo, ”Bezler reports and says a little muffled:“ It’s smoking … ”Advertising

In the interval between these two calls, it was not a Ukrainian military plane that crashed in the skies over Donbass, but a Malaysia Airlines passenger liner on flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people on board were killed.

In March 2020, a trial in the case of the downed Boeing began in the Netherlands . In Moscow, it was immediately called a  “politicized trial”: the international investigation claims that the airliner was shot down from the territory of the militia and from the Russian Buk-M1 missile launcher.READ ALSO

In the Netherlands, there is a trial in the case of the Boeing crash near Donetsk. Who is being tried, what exactly is it accused of – and what is Russia responsible for?

a year ago

Bellingcat journalists were the first to say that the anti-aircraft missile that shot down the plane was fired from a Buk missile launcher – it was their analysis that attracted the attention of Dutch investigators studying the circumstances of the crash. Since then, the Russian Ministry of Defense has called the Bellingcat team “fake generators” , their reports are based on “pseudo- hypotheses ,   and also claims that the group’s investigations are traceable to the “handwriting of the SBU.”

We stated in Bellingcat and that Igor Bezler allowed anti-aircraft guns to pass through its territory. “In Gorlovka, Yenakiyevo and their environs, hedgehogs weren’t taken to the toilet without my permission. And then the commission tells tales that someone was carrying a Buk, ” Bezler laughed in his social networks at the conclusions of the journalists and the international investigation.

But at the end of 2020, he suddenly sued Bellingcat.

” White and fluffy citizen “

Bezler’s lawsuit is being considered in the Oktyabrsky District Court of St. Petersburg. The plaintiff demands from Bellingcat to refute the publications , which are based on the communications of the brigade commander intercepted by the SBU about the “bird” flying high above the clouds. In these articles, the lieutenant colonel is called only an “important witness” of the catastrophe, but they  note that it was his subordinates who could report the passenger liner to the Russian military, mistaking it for a Ukrainian military board.

Igor Bezler is not among the accused in the case of the downed Boeing, which continues in the Netherlands. He has previously testified to the International Joint Investigation Team (JIT) as part of the investigation of this case; both said the charges representative, the investigation has decided that the role of Igor Bezler in MH17 was “not the key.”

Nevertheless, the plaintiff insists that Bellingcat “misinterpreted” his phone calls and “directly identified” the brigade commander as the person involved in the plane crash (the list of examples from the text of the articles takes three dozen pages). Therefore, every mention of Bezler by journalists “a priori is discrediting” (in total, the lawyers calculated, the name of the brigade commander appears 140 times in the texts). The retired officer demands that journalists remove all these references to him – and, given his “extreme moral suffering”, pay him half a million rubles in compensation.

The former commander of one of the largest rebel groups is positioned in the lawsuit as a man without a past, “an absolutely white and fluffy citizen without any background in Donbass, about whom they suddenly wrote nasty things on the Internet,” Sarkis Darbinyan, who heads the defense Bellingcat in a Russian court.

“We are not ready to remove Bezler’s name from our publications,” Bellingcat told Meduza.MORE ABOUT THE POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES

The task of the plaintiff in this process is to obtain a court decision, Sarkis Darbinyan is convinced, and to do it as soon as possible. This task, the lawyer believes, was set by the Russian military intelligence, intending to block Bellingcat in Russia.

“The entire site is under threat if Bellingcat refuses to remove and publish a retraction: Roskomnadzor has the right to blacklist and block the site throughout the country,” the lawyer said. – But, perhaps, there is also a more global task to whitewash the reputation of special services in the Russian media space: if Bellingcat’s investigation of Boeing suddenly turns out to be a “lie”, then, of course, other high-profile publications about the GRU, and even the investigation into Navalny,  are “lies” “.

“We do not know if there are any intentions to censor our website, but we have been the target of Russian government measures for several years – including we were subjected to a hacker attack by the GRU and a disinformation campaign,” Bellingcat told Meduza. “We regard the lawsuit filed against us [in Russia] as just a new link in this chain of attacks.”HOW IS BEZLER RELATED TO THE GRU?

“The claims of I. N. Bezler are contained in the statement of claim,” the Ivanyan & Partners law firm, which represents Bezler’s interests in the St. Petersburg court, told Meduza about the intention to seek blocking of the site in Russia. “We proceed from the assumption that Bellingcat will voluntarily comply with the decision of the Russian court if it is made in favor of our client.”

The Oktyabrsky District Court, where the case is being heard, is known for its blocking sentences , adds Darbinyan (a lawyer specializing in cyber law). “It’s like Basmanny in Moscow. One of the harshest St. Petersburg courts, which is known for many sentences in political cases, ”says the lawyer.

“I don’t give interviews, sorry,” Bezler answered to Meduza’s correspondent when asked about the reasons for filing the lawsuit and his possible connection with the GRU. – I don’t give an interview – should I repeat it in what language? I can speak German. ” 

Bellingcat vs. GRU 

Bezler himself does not appear at the trial. But at a meeting on February 25, its representatives suddenly demanded that Bellingcat’s lawyers provide them with the home address of the authors of the investigation. “Moreover, we have not been able to find out why they need it,” says Bellingcat spokesman Fyodor Kravchenko. – Do they want the author to be attracted as a defendant, a third party? Should I send him some kind of letter? “

For the fourth year in a row, Bellingcat has named active GRU officers involved in some of the most ambitious military intelligence operations abroad, from assassinations in London to coups in the Balkans.

The General Staff has probably never encountered such a series of revelations. In 2017, Bellingcat and their media partner The Insider talked about the failure of the GRU special operation in Montenegro, where the secret service tried to organize a coup – and since then have exposed several dozen officers involved in assassination attempts and disasters around the world: from  organizing the transfer of the Buk in the Donbass before  attempts to poison the Bulgarian arms supplier Yemelyan Gebrev and the former British spy Sergei Skripal with Novichok. READ ALSO

What is GRU? Who is the spy? And why are they revealed so often? Daniil Turovsky answers key questions about Russian intelligence

2 years ago

Until the fall of 2020, Russian military intelligence did not try to confront journalists in court. But in October and November – with a difference of a month – the journalists learned at once about two cases being prepared against them in Russia.

The second complaint was filed against Roman Dobrokhotov, head of The Insider, a regular co-author and media partner of Bellingcat in Russia. The applicant, Dutch blogger Max van der Werff, is also associated with the GRU, according to The Insider.

In 2019, van der Werff teamed up with a former RT employee Yana Yerlashova, founding the Bonanza Media media project, which promoted versions of Moscow’s innocence in the plane crash in eastern Ukraine. Journalists sent drafts of their articles for approval to GRU Colonel Sergei Chebanov, The Insider found out , – in response, he sometimes sent edits that ” intensified criticism of Bellingcat.”

Van der Werff also wanted to refute information about his tacit cooperation with the Main Directorate of the General Staff through the court – this was announced on November 23, 2020 by his lawyer Stalina Gurevich. And two months later, Gurevich asked the  Investigative Committee to open a criminal case – from the statement it follows that the lawyer intends to protect the interests of not only the Dutch blogger, but also unnamed “persons from among the GRU employees” whom Roman Dobrokhotov defamed “in the eyes of Western partners.” “[In the UK] while [the Dutchman’s statement] is being checked,” Gurevich clarified in a conversation with Meduza. (The UK did not respond to the request.)

The lawyer regularly calls for legal action via Twitter. Some of the posts are accompanied by photographs of Shelechka, the lawyer’s favorite cat – in the photographs she is “guarding the set of documents in the claim.” True, much more often Gurevich threatens the Investigative Committee with appealing to the Foreign Ministry if the case is not finally opened, or suggests that the investigation also study The Insider’s publications about the FSB’s work. “On her social networks, she constantly tells how much she loves the FSB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” Dobrokhotov marveled.WHO IS STALINA GUREVICH?

Van der Werff and Gurevich met and even agreed to file a lawsuit directly on Twitter, Dobrokhotov drew attention. He does not exclude that it was a staging – but in fact, the GRU is behind the attempt to prosecute him.

“With Stalin Gurevich they live in different worlds, he could not know her. Apparently, his comrades from above simply advised him: “Write to her – then we will continue,” the journalist argues. – Despite the fact that our publication with Bellingcat was also published in English and caused him a lot of problems in Holland, he did not file a lawsuit at home. And he found fault with my Russian-speaking – and he does not know Russian – tweet that ‘the GRU paid for the journalists.’ 

“It is clear that the gereushniki themselves cannot appeal against anything here – it will be ugly. But if a foreign journalist sues, then he is simply “defending his honor and dignity,” says Dobrokhotov. “Most likely, Bellingcat and I have the same story: the police are trying to resist through the courts.”

Van der Werff’s intention to sue has nothing to do with the GRU, like the Dutchman himself, Stalina Gurevich told Meduza. “Mr. Dobrokhotov talks too much. And if he makes such a statement [about the connection of the complaint with the special services], he will receive another lawsuit, ”the lawyer threatened. “And one more statement – from me personally, because I am an absolutely independent person: no one supervises me”.

The Defense Ministry did not answer Meduza’s question whether the Bonanza Media journalists collaborated with the GRU and whether military intelligence officers were involved in the preparation of van der Werff’s lawsuit.

Lawyers for liquidators and not only

Igor Bezler is represented in the St. Petersburg court by the Ivanyan & Partners law firm, an unexpectedly expensive law firm for a retired Russian lieutenant colonel. “He probably sold the car to hire them,” says a lawyer familiar with the prices. “In Russia, such a representative office under Article 152 [of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation] can cost up to three million rubles.” 

The former commandant of Gorlovka is defended by three lawyers of the bureau at once – including Sergei Kabanov, who represented companies from the nuclear and oil industries in billions of dollars in disputes, and senior partner Sergei Chuprygin. Sarkis Darbinyan believes that the impressive composition of lawyers is explained by the fact that lawyers defend in the St. Petersburg district court the interests not so much of Bezler himself, but of the Russian special services themselves.

Ivanyan & Partners has repeatedly taken on the most delicate assignments and processes that are strategically important for Russia, both within the country and abroad. WHO ARE IVANYAN AND PARTNERS

Bezler was preparing a lawsuit against Bellingcat together with the military, Bellingcat believes. In July 2020, Bezler sent an email to senior GRU officer Andrei Ilchenko, “coordinating a disinformation campaign on Flight MH17 on behalf of military intelligence,” Bellingcat said in response to Meduza’s inquiry. “Attached to the letters were Bezler’s testimony, which he gave to an international investigation team studying the circumstances of the disaster – and the copy was a lawyer from the Ivanyan & Partners bureau, which now represents Bezler in [Russian] court,” Bellingcat said. 

Ivanyan & Partners is not involved in the downed Boeing case, the bureau told Meduza. But in the forty-page lawsuit of Bezler, prepared by lawyers, there are references to his testimony to the representatives of the investigation on flight MH17, Bellingcat notes.

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins co-defends Igor Bezler's lawsuit
Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins co-defends Igor Bezler’s lawsuitPiroschka van de Wouw / ANP / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

We also studied Ilchenko’s telephone billing at Bellingcat. “He called the Ivanyan & Partners bureau several times before finally calling Bezler, and a few hours later Bezler sent the materials to Ilchenko and the lawyer. This sequence of negotiations suggests that the [Petersburg] lawsuit against us was coordinated between Bezler and senior GRU officers, ”says a Bellingcat spokesman.

Ilchenko’s correspondence and bills were investigated by Bellingcat prior to receiving a lawsuit from Bezler and as part of an independent investigation, the journalists emphasize. And the officer’s e-mail box “was hacked and posted on the network … by a group calling itself the Black Mirror,” Bellingcat claims (leaks of the contents of the emails of Russian officials regularly appear on the  telegram channel of this hacker collective).

A completely different version of events is described to Meduza by Ivanyan & Partners: Bezler’s correspondence with the bureau’s lawyers, according to the law firm, was obtained by Bellingсat not from open sources, but as a result of a deliberate hacker attack. “I. N. Bezler’s mail was hacked in October 2020, just a few days after Bellingcat was served in the UK by I. N. Bezler. Since the filing of this lawsuit, several powerful attacks have been launched against the mail servers of the law firm – for the first time in 16 years of our work, ”the office told Meduza.

In mid-December 2020, Bezler demanded that the investigators immediately stop using information from the correspondence, “and also disclose the content of materials that fell into the hands of Bellingcat after the hacking of his mail.” “Bellingcat has so far left this appeal unanswered,” the Ivanyan & Partners bureau says.

“Bellingcat does not carry out hacker attacks,” the group told Meduza.

Ivanyan & Partners rejects the assumption that the lawsuit filed in St. Petersburg may be overseen by Russian military intelligence. “Our client is I. N. Bezler, he himself ‘supervises’ our work,” they say in the law firm.

The Defense Ministry did not answer Meduza’s question whether Bezler represents the interests of the GRU in this process.

Having received a decision in Russia, go to a Dutch court

Lawyers interviewed by Meduza say that Ivanyan & Partners is known primarily for its international practice.

“We have encountered them in some cross-border cases – and they command nothing but respect,” says Meduza’s interlocutor in the legal services market. “This is one of literally 3-4 Russian teams that independently conduct civil cases in foreign jurisdictions – and I would call Ivanyan and Partners the first.”

Bezler’s defenders also have a specialist in international dispute resolution. “Now they will receive the decision of the Russian court – and will apply with it to the jurisdictions in which Bellingcat operates,” the Russian lawyer does not doubt the reasons for this coincidence. – And what, deserving respect legal position: no one goes anywhere with a bottle of poison, but, on the contrary, goes to court.

Blogger Max van der Werff, who, as Bellingcat and The Insider wrote , with the GRU, also reported on Bezler’s intentions to sue abroad . “The legal proceedings will begin in the Russian court, and then in the courts of Great Britain and / or the Netherlands,” the Dutchman said on his Twitter account .

Roman Dobrokhotov also believes that the process in the St. Petersburg district court is only a preparation for claims in foreign jurisdictions. “Since Bezler’s lawyers have such international experience, the whole story is aimed at an international audience. Having received a decision in Russia, go to a Dutch court and demand that these publications be removed in the West. “

“And this piece of paper will be used to operate before all possible instances where the Boeing disaster will be considered,” says Maxim Madaminov, representing Bellingcat in St. Petersburg. “Perhaps they, both in Ukraine and in Holland, will begin to prosecute all persons who disseminated similar information with similar lawsuits,” Darbinyan, who defended the journalists, does not rule out.

Ivanyan & Partners did not answer Meduza’s question whether the bureau is preparing to file claims in the courts of the Netherlands, Great Britain or Ukraine. “We represent the interests of I. N. Bezler in the Russian trial against Bellingcat,” the law firm said. “Russian legislation allows us to protect the interests of Russian citizens from defamation, including against foreign defendants.”

It is the prospect of complaints abroad that can explain Bezler’s sudden move to St. Petersburg: as indicated in his claim, he is now registered in an apartment on Voznesensky Prospekt (which, according to the USRR extract, does not belong to him). At the same time , the press describes how the former militia leader and his wife are resting in Crimea, where the brigade commander even took up gardening (peaches, nectarines, persimmons). However, Bezler is suing Bellingcat as a Petersburg resident.

The retired military man registered in St. Petersburg as if only for the sake of the results of the consideration of his claim subsequently recognized abroad. “To all appearances, Bezler and, possibly, the GER team behind him understood that no one abroad would recognize the decision of the Crimean court,” Sarkis Darbinyan believes. “Therefore, he was urgently registered in St. Petersburg – and filed a statement of claim there”. For international proceedings, he will have to pay lawyers at least tens of thousands of dollars.

This legal procedure launched in a Russian court, says Darbinyan, “is probably connected with the desire to whitewash the reputation of the special services, which have been in a puddle many times lately.”

(C)MEDUZA 2021

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