UN-backed former Libyan PM vindicated by Guardian pay out & apology in libel settlement

The former Prime Minister of Libya, Mr Faiez Sarraj, has successfully settled his libel claim against The Guardian, which has published a retraction and apology and agreed a substantial financial settlement for damages and costs.

Mr Sarraj was represented by Mark Henderson, instructed by Hussain Haider of Lee Valley Solicitors, in his libel claim against Guardian News and Media, publishers of The Guardian.

The Guardian published two articles on 15 July 2021, one of which was headlined ‘Who’s buying Vanuatu’s passports? Crypto moguls, wanted men and even a prime minister’ (the “prime minister” being Mr Sarraj). The Guardian alleged that Mr Sarraj purchased Vanuatu citizenship in January 2020 while he was the UN-backed prime minister” of Libya, a month after “amid an escalating civil war, Sarraj’s rival, Tobruk-based general Khalifa Haftar, announced the beginning of a new offensive in what he declared the “final battle” for the capital.” It added that “The assault on Libya’s capital failed, but Sarraj went on to resign from his position as prime minister of the Tripoli-based government of national accord in March 2021. He has since reportedly left Libya.

A second article, published on the same date under the headline ‘Citizenship for sale: fugitives, politicians and disgraced businesspeople buying Vanuatu passports’, stated that “The Guardian also identified Libya’s former UN-backed prime minister” as having purchased Vanuatu citizenship “as Libyan ceasefire agreements broke down in January 2020” and “after resigning in March of this year, he has since reportedly left Libya.” The Guardian added a disclaimer to both articles that “There is no suggestion by the Guardian that Sarraj …[has] been involved in any wrongdoing or criminal activity, or did anything improper in buying a Vanuatu passport.”

Mr Sarraj brought a defamation claim because it was untrue that he purchased Vanuatu citizenship and that he had left Libya after standing down as Prime Minister. He said that the suggestion that he left Libya after purchasing this citizenship while holding office as the “UN-backed Prime Minister” suggested a betrayal of his country and the UN, and that the headline “even a prime minister” was designed to, and did, give the story shock value.

He argued that regardless of the Guardian’s disclaimer the articles gave the impression that he was part of a rogues’ gallery of disreputable politicians, criminals, and shady figures who had purchased the citizenship of a state portrayed by the Guardian as a tax haven offering backdoor access to the UK and EU. 

The Guardian resisted the claim, raising a number of defences. However, it has now settled the claim with a substantial payment towards damages and costs, the removal of all references to Mr Sarraj from the articles and headlines, a published retraction and apology, and an agreement not to republish the inaccuracies identified in its statement.

Mr Sarraj said:

The claim that I bought Vanuatu citizenship when Prime Minister and then left Libya after standing down was untrue, and distressing to myself and those who have put their faith in me within my country and in the international community. That is why I took action to correct this wrong. I welcome the Guardian’s recognition of the true position, and the positive steps it has taken to remedy its errors.  I would like to thank my legal team for their determined efforts to ensure that this was achieved.

The Guardian’s statement reads:

Mr Faiez Sarraj – apology

In two articles published in 2021, we wrongly stated that Libya’s former prime minister Faiez Sarraj purchased Vanuatu citizenship in January 2020, while still in office. We would like to clarify that Mr Sarraj did not purchase such citizenship. The articles also erroneously said that Mr Sarraj had, after leaving office, "reportedly left Libya". His representatives have asked us to make clear that he continues to reside in Libya since leaving office, other than for temporary foreign visits. We are happy to set the record straight and we apologise for these errors. References to Mr Sarraj have been removed from both articles (Who’s buying Vanuatu’s passports? Crypto moguls, wanted men and even a prime minister; and Citizenship for sale: fugitives, politicians and disgraced businesspeople buying Vanuatu passports; 14 July 2021).