Libel trial to put Mahmood in the spotlight

By Dominic Ponsford

The News of the World is set to be at the centre of an extraordinary
libel trial next week involving one of the men involved in an alleged
plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham.

Romanian Alin Turcu, 20, is suing over allegations contained in the
NoW splash of 3 November 2002, headlined: “Posh kidnap: We stop £5m
ransom gang”.

Following an undercover operation by NoW
investigations editor Mazher Mahmood, the newspaper claimed it had
uncovered a plot to kidnap Beckham and ransom her for £5m or else kill
her.

Turcu was described in the piece as the international criminal gang’s “surveillance expert”.7

The Romanian is also suing over subsequent stories that appeared in NoW sister title The Sun.

Turcu
is understood to be of limited means and only able to take on the NoW
because his lawyer, media law specialist David Price, has taken the
case on a no win, no fee basis. If he loses, Price will not get paid,
but if he wins, he could charge News International anything up to 100
per cent more than his normal fee.

Because Turcu is unlikely to
be able to pay NI’s fees if he loses, the company faces a bill for
hundreds of thousands regardless of the outcome.

The NoW passed a
dossier of evidence to the police on the eve of its sensational 2002
front-page story, leading to the arrest of five men – four Romanians
and an Albanian – including Turcu.

More than 20 armed police
ambushed the gang in an East London car park where they were due to
meet Mahmood and the entire episode was caught on camera by the
newspaper.

However, despite the NoW dossier of evidence, which
included taped conversations, a subsequent kidnap trial collapsed in
June 2003. The Crown Prosecution Service said the main witness, the
NoW’s informant, Florin Gashi, was unreliable.

Gashi had been paid by the newspaper and also had criminal convictions for dishonesty.

Mahmood,
whose appearance is kept a closely guarded secret by the newspaper, is
likely to take the stand next week if the trial proceeds. He paid Gashi
£10,000 for details of the gang’s alleged exploits, but was later
cleared by the Press Complaints Commission of breaching the editors’
Code of Conduct as it then stood.

The proposed trial is believed to be unique because the claimant, Turcu, will not be taking the stand or be present in court.

He left Britain last year and is currently resident in Romania.

In
another twist, Turcu is believed to have issues with the British
immigration authorities because he originally entered Britain in 1999
under an assumed name. His real name is Bogdan Maris.

If the trial does go ahead next week, is will put the NoW’s investigative methods under intense scrutiny.

Following his arrest, Turcu spent eight months on remand in Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution.

His
lawyers are to argue that there was no plot to kidnap Beckham and that
the News of the World’s then editor Rebekah Wade took a “calculated
risk” that the defendants would lack the resources to sue.

The News of the World’s lawyers intend to argue that the story was true and said they will defend the action “vigorously”.

The case is due to be heard without a jury by Mr Justice Eady, starting on Tuesday.

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