Saudi “libel tourist” wins a round

Khalid Salim a bin MahfouzSheik Khalid Salim a bin Mahfouz sleeps with goats and chickens. And he looks like a weasel, too. So sue me.

Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld made some perhaps better-researched statements in her 2003 book Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It. In particular, she accused Saudi billionaire Sheik Khalid Salim a bin Mahfouz of financing terrorism in a big way:

Her book had reported that bin Mahfouz, the former chairman of Saudi Arabia’s largest bank, National Commercial Bank, had allegedly deposited “tens of millions of dollars in London and New York directly into terrorist accounts—the accounts of the same terrorists who were implicated in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 224 people were killed, including twelve Americans, and more than four thousand were injured.”

The book implicated bin Mahfouz in transferring from the bank’s Zakat (charity) Committee some $74 million to the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) and to the Muwafaq “blessed relief” Foundation. Muwafaq in turn allegedly deposited funds directly with al Qaeda. Finally, Ehrenfeld also indicated that much of the funding for terrorism emanates from the Saudis, including the bin Mahfouz and al Rahji families, who allegedly funnel the monies through a host of “charitable” institutions. — Alyssa A. Lappen, ‘Libel Wars’, Frontpage Magazine (2005)

Ehrenfeld’s accusations were carefully documented, and under US law are protected as free speech. However, libel laws in the UK are much looser and put the burden of proof on the accused. Although only a handful of books were sold in the UK, Ehrenfeld describes what happened:

Bin Mahfouz sued me in London in January 2004, shortly after the U.S. publication of my book… I refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of a British court over a book published here; the court then ruled for bin Mahfouz by default, enjoined British publication of Funding Evil, awarded bin Mahfouz $225,900 in damages and expenses and ordered me to publicly apologize and destroy the book. I refuse to acknowledge the British Court or its ruling…

Since British libel law favors suits such as bin Mahfouz’s, and the First Amendment protects U.S. journalists reporting on public issues, I chose to fight his false claims in America. I sued in a New York federal court, for a declaration that bin Mahfouz’ English default judgment is unenforceable in the United States, because it violates my First Amendment rights…

On June 8, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously declared my case is “ripe” for hearing in a U.S. [state] court, noting that the case has implications for all U.S. authors and publishers, whose First Amendment rights are threatened by foreign libel rulings.

Unfortunately, the New York State Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) has just ruled that a New York court cannot hear Ehrenfeld’s case on the technical grounds that bin Mahfouz does little business in New York.

Although our sheik can’t collect his judgement in the US without going to court here (where he would probably lose, big time) Ehrenfeld is out a small fortune in legal expenses. And she can’t travel to the UK without risking arrest.

The practice of silencing writers and journalists by taking advantage of UK laws has come to be called “libel tourism” and is a favorite tactic of bin Mahfouz and other rich malefactors:

…bin Mahfouz sued Pluto Press in the U.K. over the suggestion in Michael Griffin’s 2003 Reaping the Whirlwind that he was related by marriage to Osama bin Laden and a supporter of terrorism. Bin Mahfouz “accepted” a substantial settlement and an apology, as he did earlier for a report in the Mail on Sunday. In another case, bin Mahfouz’ litigiousness was reportedly behind the halt in British publication by Secker & Warburg in early 2004 of Craig Unger’s House of Bush; House of Saud. — Lappen

…bin Mahfouz threatened to sue Cambridge University Press (CUP), the publisher of Alms of Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, but refrained from including the book’s two American writers, J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins.

Facing the mere threat of a lawsuit from Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz, Cambridge University Press — the world’s oldest publishing house — agreed in Britain’s High Court on July 30, to pulp all the unsold copies. When the American authors rightfully refused to join, CUP issued a public apology, which in fact defamed the authors. CUP also paid substantial undisclosed damages, a huge “contribution” to a charity of bin Mahfouz’ choice, and sent letters to more than 200 libraries worldwide, asking to pull the book off their shelves. CUP’s capitulation handed an important victory to the Saudis’ financial jihad against free speech. — Ehrenfeld

Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Mohammed Jameel — another Saudi billionaire — have also sued foreign publications for libel in the UK and won (although Jameel’s case was later overthrown by the House of Lords).

The problem with all this is that publishers are beginning to get cold feet about printing anything that could make a possible libel tourist unhappy, no matter how untrue — or how important. Truth and justice are all very nice concepts, but when a publisher needs to spend half a million dollars in legal fees to publish a book that may not earn that much, this has what lawyers call a “chilling effect” on free speech:

Ehrenfeld was hardly his only target. Bin Mahfouz and other wealthy Saudis had previously attacked other reporters and news agencies, all of which chose to apologize publicly, or settle the cases—or in the cases of some book publishers, to back off publication all together. USA Today, for one, printed a lengthy retraction concerning a November 2004 article by Marc Umile that had implicated bin Mahfouz.

As a result of bin Mahfouz’ intimidation, Gerald Posner, in Secrets of the Kingdom, makes no reference to bin Mahfouz or Muwafaq. Loretta Napoleoni removed all references to bin Mahfouz from her U.S. paperback book, Terror Incorporated. — Lappen

And since the internet has world-wide reach, even I could be a target of such as bin Mahfouz.

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