Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Saudi terror, British censorship

A really astonishing story is beginning to emerge in the UK, the highlights of which were noted by Stanley Kurtz at The Corner. It appears to be simultaneously an indictment of the courage of certain publishers and a call to action with regard to UK libel laws.

The central figure in this escapade is one Khalid bin Mahfouz. The gentleman has, in recent months, made a hobby of suing writers who assert a connection between the Saudi government and terrorism. This is, of course, a great deal easier in the UK than it is in the US; the UK courts essentially place the burden of proof in libel cases on the defendant.

Mahfouz has already won one judgment, against American writer Rachel Ehrenfeld. The peculiar circumstances in which Mahfouz obtained standing to sue the writer of a book not even published in Britain are explained by Emory University’s Deborah Lipstadt, who is no stranger to UK libel suits (see below):

Bin Mafouz sued Ehrenfeld in London for libel. As most readers of this blog know, the burden there is on the defendant. But here is the kicker: Ehrenfeld never published her book in the UK. A couple of copies were sold as special orders over Amazon which posted a chanpter of the book on the Internet.

Bin Mafouz is essentially a “libel tourists,” who find some sort of weak connection in the UK to use that vanue to sue. The judge ruled that she must apologize to bin Mahfouz and pay over $225,000. She has not done either and, therefore, cannot travel to the UK, a servere impediment for someone who does research on terrorism and jihad.

As one might expect, and as Lipstadt goes on to explain, the author is engaging in what amounts to an appeal of that decision through the US courts and appears to be making some headway. Today, however, things got a good deal stranger.

At a different site, Lipstadt notes that bin Mahfouz has threatened a second suit, again in the UK, against J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, authors of the book Alms for Jihad. She explains:

The authors explore how, in the words of Michael Rubin, writing in the New York Sun:

The Saudi royal family played a pernicious role, founding and promoting charities to spread militant Sunni Islam, not only as an inoculation against resurgent Shi’ism from revolutionary Iran, but also to radicalize the Muslims in Europe and America.

The British lawyers for Khalid bin Mahfouz and his son Abdulrahman bin Mahfouz wrote Cambridge University Press saying they intended to sue the Press and the authors for defamation against their clients.

Cambridge University Press contacted the authors, and they provided detailed material in support of their claims made in Alms for Jihad.

Nonetheless, Cambridge University Press decided not to contest the argument and next week they will apologize in court.

Not merely apologize, and pay compensation, but also destroy the entire press run of the book. Consequently, the book is suddenly unavailable at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. One wonders if an American publisher will pick up the gauntlet and try to get American publication rights. I also wonder whether those rights are available at this point.

Now, I suppose it might be that bin Mahfouz’s complaints are justified, that CUP is making a reasoned decision based on the facts rather than a decision based entirely on fear. If it’s true, it certainly doesn’t speak too well to the professionalism of the editors at CUP that they didn’t fact-check to begin with. In this case, however, the evidence seems to point to outright cravenness by CUP.

Or, alternatively: to a fundamental flaw in the entire way the UK courts approach libel law. After all, CUP had every reason to think that they might have a hard time defending against a libel judgment, even if everything they said was both true and verifiable. Ehrenfeld lost her case; Lipstadt was famously sued by David Irving when she pointed out that he was a Holocaust denier (Irving lost). And more recently, we had the gruesome spectacle of the Daily Telegraph losing a verdict to George Galloway over printed charges that would now appear to have been validated by a Parliamentary inquiry.

In short: we are well past the point at which the UK’s approach to libel chills speech–even truthful speech–in that country. That poses a particular problem for the war on terror, but an even larger one where the basic liberties of the British people are concerned. They deserve better. One hopes for politicians courageous enough to seek a remedy.

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