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By John Helmer, Moscow

In Abakan at this time of year the sun doesn’t rise until 10 in the morning, and by 5 it’s too dark to see much. It’s always been this way in the days which follow Kreshenskiy Moroz (the Feast of the Epiphany, old calendar).

This week in the capital of the central Siberian region of Khakassia, the forecast is for a low of -37 C. and a high of – 14 C. The windchill is -25 C. On January 31, 2005, the mean temperature during the day was -28 C, reaching -34 C after the sun went down at 5:33 pm.

That was the day, according to testimony in the High Court in London yesterday, when Nathaniel Rothschild persuaded his friend, now Lord Peter Mandelson, to fly from Moscow to Abakan and then to Brussels in time for the latter to make it to the office on the morning of February 1. Mandelson was the European Union Trade Commissioner, and clock-in time at work is early.

Their host for the flight from Moscow to Abakan and for their day there was Oleg Deripaska, the Russian aluminium magnate. It was his aeroplane which carried the guests to Abakan; it was his chalet which accommodated them overnight; and it was under his duvets Rothschild and Mandelson kept warm.

The Daily Mail of London and its publisher, Associated Newspapers, are being sued by Rothschild for defaming him with the innuendo that Rothschild put his two pals, Mandelson and Deripaska, in a conflict of interest, which Mandelson should have known better than to expose himself to. Rothschild’s law firm is Schillings, which also represents Deripaska.

The trial commenced in court no. 14 on The Strand yesterday. The presiding judge is the High Court’s specialist on the law of libel, Sir Michael Tugendhat. The Daily Mail has ordered its lawyers Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC) to prevent reporting of the case from the verbatim transcripts generated by court reporter, Merrill Corporation. Merrill has also been instructed not to sell the transcripts to reporters who don’t work for Associated Newspapers unless the presiding judge issues his permission. According to RPC, noone has applied, so noone has been refused.

The Mail’s scoop on what happened on the first trial day amounts to one sentence not already disclosed in the preliminaries. Based on written evidence already submitted by Rothschild, this is that he invited Mandelson on the trip east because “he had no plans for the weekend and did not know people in Brussels”. The detour amounted to 6,980 kilometres. In 2005, January 31 was a Monday; Mandelson must have been playing hookie.

The Financial Times managed its own scoop by writing down what Rothschild’s counsel, Hugh Tomlinson QC claimed on his client’s behalf: “The trip to Siberia was recreational”, he said, “no business was discussed”. Tomlinson also said in court that it is “fanciful” for anyone to suggest the trip was engineered to allow discussions in secret between the trade commissioner and Deripaska.

According to evidence presented by the newspaper during a preliminary hearing last month, “Lord Mandelson’s supposed sight-seeing trip to Siberia would have taken place largely (and quite possibly entirely) in darkness, in extreme sub zero temperatures and would have barely lasted 12 hours in total. In the circumstances, there was no sensible reason for [Mr Rothschild] to invite Lord Mandelson to travel to Russia on 30 January 2005 if the object of the trip was merely to afford him an opportunity to visit Siberia as a place of interest.”

In court it has now been revealed that Deripaska took Rothschild and Mandelson to an aluminium smelter and to the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric power station.

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