Roman Abramovich has welcomed a ruling in the first round of a libel claim over allegations that he purchased Chelsea FC on Vladimir Putin’s orders as part of a plot to gain influence in the West.
The 55-year-old billionaire is suing journalist Catherine Belton over her best-selling book Putin’s People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West, which was published by HarperCollins last April.
Ms Belton, the former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, said Mr Abramovich “was acting under Kremlin direction” when he bought the Premier League club for £150 million in 2003.
His barrister Hugh Tomlinson QC told the High Court in July that readers of the book would conclude that Mr Abramovich “had been used as the acceptable face of a corrupt and dangerous regime” and had a corrupt relationship with President Putin, acting as his “cashier”.
However, Andrew Caldecott QC, representing Ms Belton and HarperCollins, pointed out that the reference to Mr Abramovich being a cashier was “in quotation marks, suggesting it is someone else’s observation”.
Mr Caldecott also told the court that the book “records a firm denial from a ‘person close to Abramovich’” that he bought Chelsea on Mr Putin’s orders.
Mrs Justice Tipples was asked to determine the “natural and ordinary” meaning of the allegations about Mr Abramovich.
In a ruling on Wednesday, she found that readers of the book would understand Mr Abramovich to be “under the control of President Vladimir Putin and, on the directions of President Putin and the Kremlin, he has had to make the fortune from his business empire available for the use of President Putin and his regime.
“The claimant has had little choice but to comply with these directions because, if he had not done so, he would have lost his wealth to the Russian state and could have been exiled or jailed.”
Mrs Justice Tipples also said an ordinary reader would understand the book to allege “the claimant purchased Chelsea Football Club in 2003 at the direction of President Putin so that Russia could gain acceptance and influence in the UK”.
The judge added the chapter about Mr Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea FC is “a striking part of the book, which will make an impression on the reader”.
She also ruled a reader would understand that the billionaire moved to New York on President Putin’s directions in order to influence former US president Donald Trump’s family on Russia’s behalf.
The judge found nine of the allegations a normal reader would take away from the book were defamatory against Mr Abramovich.
Mrs Justice Tipples also ruled that the allegations in the book are presented as statements of fact, rather than expressions of opinion as HarperCollins and Ms Belton had argued.
Following the judgment, Mr Abramovich’s spokesperson said: “We welcome today’s judgment which rules that the book ‘Putin’s People’ indeed makes several defamatory allegations about Mr Abramovich, including false allegations about the nature of the purchase of Chelsea Football Club.
“We are pleased that the judgment has found that the book carries a total of nine defamatory allegations against Mr Abramovich, in line with the arguments in Mr Abramovich’s initial claim.”
The spokesperson continued: “Today’s judgment further underscores the need for the false and defamatory claims about Mr Abramovich to be corrected as soon as possible.”
HarperCollins and Ms Belton are also being sued for libel by Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft over the book.
However, in a second judgment delivered by Mrs Justice Tipples on Wednesday, she ruled that three of the four allegations the energy firm had complained about were not defamatory.
Reacting to the rulings, the publishing house said Mr Abramovich had “exaggerated” the meaning of the parts of the book he had complained about.
A HarperCollins spokesperson said: “Mr Abramovich has not won his claim against HarperCollins and Catherine Belton.
“The judge found, in relation to the majority of Mr Abramovich’s complaints, that he had exaggerated the meaning of the words he complained about and rejected one complaint in its entirety.
“Today’s preliminary judgment only decides what ordinary readers would understand the relevant passages in the book to mean.
“Any trial is not expected to take place for at least a year. The current state of English law means that all investigative journalists run the risk of having to defend defamation claims when they report critically on matters of public interest.
“Arising out of the same hearing, the court agreed with HarperCollins and Catherine Belton that three of the four passages complained of by Rosneft were not defamatory of the company at all.”