LONDON – Novelist Salman Rushdie won an apology Tuesday from a former bodyguard who attacked his character, a court decision the author hopes will set a new precedent for high-profile English libel trials.
Former Metropolitan Police officer Ronald Evans accepted that the allegations carried in his book "On Her Majesty's Service" were untrue and apologized to Rushdie and his former wife Elizabeth West "for the hurt and damage they have suffered as a result," attorney Theo Solley told London's High Court.
Rushdie, who sought only to recover his lawyers' cost, became a free speech icon after Muslims across the world demanded the retraction of his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses" over its allegedly blasphemous content.
He said Tuesday before the hearing that there was no parallel between attempting to suppress a work of fiction and trying to pass a lie off as fact.
Rushdie's strategy of demanding an apology -- without seeking a large financial award -- is unusual for a celebrity driven libel case in Britain, where a plaintiff-friendly laws encourage to the rich and famous to seek financial redress for attacks on their reputation. Rushdie said he sought to set the record straight while skipping damages that could impede free speech.
"Instead of just going for megabucks, you just go to court to decide what's the truth and what's not," Rushdie said of the strategy while speaking to reporters outside of the court building.
Rushdie's legal approach contrasts with so-called "libel tourism," cases, or those in which foreigners have sued the media over articles they would likely have lost in their own countries. Libel laws in the United States, for example, require someone to prove that an article was both false and published maliciously, whereas British law places the burden of proof on the publisher.
By asking a judge to rule on a matter of fact, Rushdie avoided what his lawyer Geoffrey Robertson referred to as a casino-like process "where minor celebrities and politicians receive more damages for abusive comments than are awarded to victims who have been raped or those that have lost of an eye or a leg."
Evans, a police driver assigned to protect Rushdie while he lived under threat from an Iranian-backed death warrant brought on by "The Satanic Verses," attacked his charge's character in his tell-all book. Excerpts of the work were carried by The Mail on Sunday newspaper and repeated elsewhere.
In the book, Evans alleged among other things that Rushdie sought to profit from the threat on his life -- allegations his lawyer admitted were untrue at the court hearing Tuesday.
Justice Nigel Teare officially declared the allegations false. Evans, his ghostwriter Douglas Thompson, and his publisher John Blake Publishing Ltd. agreed to foot Rushdie's legal bill.
Rushdie said the claims made by Evans's book bore no relation to issues of free speech.
"There is a straightforward difference between the statement of opinion and the perpetration of untruth," the Booker Prize-winning author told The Associated Press before the hearing. "Had he written a novel, there would have been no case. He would have had the defense of his imagination."
Rushdie said he had not sought to have the book suppressed -- adding that John Blake Publishing has taken the initiative to re-edit the book.
Diana Colbert, a representative for the publisher, said in an e-mail that Evans's book would go out "with some amendments" in early September. She declined to go into further detail, citing legal reasons.
Evans did not return e-mails seeking comment.