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Seal of disapproval Oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin files complaint against linguist who served as expert witness in defamation cases

Aonton Tushin / TASS

Catering tycoon Evgeny Prigozhin has filed a complaint with prosecutors against Irina Levontina, a forensic linguistics expert who works for the Russian Language Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Levontina served as an expert witness in two defamation lawsuits that Prigozhin filed against journalists. According to Novaya Gazeta, the Kremlin-linked oligarch is accusing Levontina of “misconduct” because she included the Russian Language Institute’s official seal on paperwork submitted to the courts as expert evidence. Levontina believes that the complaints are an attempt to have her opinions, which don’t support Prigozhin’s claims in either case, thrown out.

Forensic linguistics expert Irina Levontina served as an expert witness in two recent defamation cases filed by Kremlin-linked oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin against Russian journalists. Now, Prigozhin has appealed to prosecutors with a complaint against her, arguing that the linguist had no right to use the official seal of her employer — the Russian Language Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

The first case Levontina prepared an expert opinion for was a lawsuit Prigozhin brought against journalist Maxim Shevchenko. According to the ruling from Moscow’s Savelovsky District Court, Prigozhin contested statements Shevchenko made during a YouTube live stream in August 2020. Commenting on the 2018 murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic, Shevchenko said Prigozhin’s actors were tailing the victims “until the moment they were shot.” 

In her forensic linguistic assessment, Levontina pointed out the speculative nature of Shevchenko’s statements, arguing that they expressed his personal opinion. She also concluded that Shevchenko didn’t make any statements that were demeaning to Prigozhin’s honor and dignity. The Savelovsky Court dismissed the lawsuit, but the Moscow City Court later overturned the ruling and returned the case for retrial. A hearing is scheduled for December 6.

The second case was a defamation lawsuit Prigohzin filed against Ekho Moskvy, its editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov, and the chief editor of the radio station’s website, Vitaly Ruvinsky. The oligarch filed the claim after Venediktov called him “the owner of the Wagner PMC” during a radio broadcast in July 2020, reported the press service for Prigozhin’s Concord Group. 

In her expert opinion, Levontina wrote that while on air, Venediktov presented his “personal view.” She also added that the text didn’t contain any disparaging information about Prigozhin. “The very information about E. Prigozhin’s connection with the Wagner PMC cannot be considered unambiguously negative,” she stated in her assessment, as quoted by Novaya Gazeta. The court has yet to render a decision on Prigozhin’s claim. The next hearing is scheduled for December 15. 

Speaking to Novaya Gazeta, Levontina said that when she was preparing her opinion for the case against Shevchenko, one of Prigozhin’s representatives called the Russian Language Institute to inquire about her position there and whether she is allowed to give expert testimony. The administration responded by confirming that Levontina works there, but said that she prepared the expert opinions in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the institute. Prigozhin’s lawyer sent a similar letter to the institute after Levontina prepared an expert opinion for the case against Ekho Moskvy.

On November 1, the Khamovincheskaya Inter-district Attorney’s Office appealed to the Russian Language Institute with a request to verify evidence of the unlawful use of the institute’s official seal on Levontina’s expert opinions. In response, the institute’s acting director Fedor Uspensky told the agency that “the institute’s official seal was put on the linguistic reports not for the purpose of affirming the text of the reports, but for the purpose of authenticating her [Levontina’s] personal signature.” Nevertheless, prosecutors began calling the institute, requesting that it hand over Irina Levontina’s personal information, the linguist said. According to Levontina, “for some reason, a district police officer came to seize documents.”

Irina Levontina

“This is an absolutely insignificant case, but it’s [being handled] like serious proceedings,” Levontina said. “At first it wasn’t clear what they wanted. Either it was to intimidate me or so that I would refuse [to testify as an expert witness]. At the last court hearing it became clear that all of this was done to dismiss my opinion as inadmissible evidence.” 

Lawyer Kaloy Akhilgov, who represents Ekho Moskvy’s Alexey Venediktov, confirmed that Prigozhin’s lawyers tried to get Levontina’s opinion thrown out by claiming that she has a close connection to the radio station and gave biased testimony. In addition, Prigozhin’s legal representatives told the court that the police drew up an administrative protocol against Levontina “on the fact of the illegal use” of the Russian Language Institute’s seal. Prigozhin’s lawyers didn’t provide evidence to back this claim, so the court appealed to the Interior Ministry for confirmation. Levontina’s opinion hasn’t been excluded from the case. 

On November 8, prosecutors submitted a plea to the Russian Language Institute, demanding that it address the alleged misconduct and take disciplinary action against all of those involved. The institute is currently conducting an internal investigation.

Meanwhile, the publishing house Corpus, which publishes Irina Levontina’s books, has spoken out in her defense. “It’s obvious that the purpose of the prosecutors’ check is to put pressure on the expert [Levontina],” Corpus said in a statement released on November 15. “We fully support Irina Levontina and believe that Evgeny Prigozhin is committing ‘misconduct’ [in] trying to destroy independent professional expertise, the task of which is to establish the truth.” 

read more about Evgeny Prigozhin

Prigozhin’s criminal past, straight from the source A complete translation of one of the court documents from the case that sent ‘Putin’s chef’ to prison, four decades ago

read more about Evgeny Prigozhin

Prigozhin’s criminal past, straight from the source A complete translation of one of the court documents from the case that sent ‘Putin’s chef’ to prison, four decades ago

Text by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Eilish Hart

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