On Wednesday, a British journalist and her publisher disputed a defamation action brought by billionaire Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich over a book about Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was commenting on his ascent in a London court.
Catherine Belton’s book “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West” chronicles former KGB operative Putin and his circle of allies’ ascent to riches and power following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Belton, a former Financial Times Moscow reporter, and HarperCollins are being sued in the High Court by Russian-born Abramovich, who claims the book’s assertion that he acquired Chelsea in 2003 at Putin’s behest is “false and defamatory.” Chelsea, which competes in the Premier League, is one of the most well-known soccer clubs in the world.
Hugh Tomlinson, Abramovich’s lawyer, stated that the book created the appearance that the acquisition was “part of a scheme to corrupt the West… aimed at building a block hold in the U.K. for Russian influence.”
Readers of the book, according to Andrew Caldecott, a lawyer for Belton and HarperCollins, will infer that “there are grounds to suspect Mr. Abramovich was acting in the Kremlin’s direction,” rather than that he was. The book also contains a “firm denial” from a person close to Abramovich.The case has alarmed free-speech advocates, who believe it is all too easy for affluent individuals to use Britain’s courts to suppress critics.
Belton is also being sued for libel by Rosneft, the Russian state-owned energy company. HarperCollins was also sued by Russian tycoon Mikhail Fridman and Russian banker Petr Aven, but Tomlinson said Wednesday that both claims had been settled.
He stated that the publisher has “agreed to remove effectively all of the material on which the actions are based from future editions of the book” and apologized for not reaching those two persons before publication for feedback on claims implying they had early KGB links.
Tomlinson represents Abramovich, Fridman, and Aven, although he denied any “coordination” among the claimants at the outset of Wednesday’s hearing. He said he was recruited “coincidentally and entirely independently” by the three individuals.
The book “holds itself out as a serious work of contemporary history, but unfortunately, it repeats lazy inaccuracies,” Tomlinson said, denying that the Russian defendants’ allegations were an attack on free speech and media.
The hearing before Judge Amanda Tipples is set to take two days.