LONDON – A British journalist and her publisher contested a defamation claim in a London court on Wednesday from billionaire Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich over a book about the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Catherine Belton’s book “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West” charts the rise to wealth and power of former KGB agent Putin and his circle of associates after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Belton, a former Financial Times Moscow correspondent, and publisher HarperCollins are being sued at the High Court by the Russian-born Abramovich, who says the book’s claim that he purchased the Chelsea team in 2003 at Putin’s direction is “false and defamatory.” Chelsea, which plays in the Premier League, is one of the world's best-known soccer teams.
Abramovich’s lawyer, Hugh Tomlinson, said the book gave the impression the purchase was “part of a scheme to corrupt the West ... aimed at building a blockhold in the U.K. for Russian influence.”
Andrew Caldecott, a lawyer for Belton and HarperCollins, said readers of the book would conclude “there are grounds to suspect Mr. Abramovich was acting at the Kremlin’s direction,” rather than that he definitely was. The book also includes a “firm denial” from a person close to Abramovich, he noted.
Free-speech groups have expressed alarm at the case, saying it is too easy for wealthy people to use Britain’s courts to silence criticism.
Belton is also being sued for libel by the Russian state-owned energy firm Rosneft. HarperCollins was also facing suits from Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman and Russian banker Petr Aven, but Tomlinson said Wednesday that those claims have been settled.
He said the publisher had “agreed to remove effectively all the material on which the actions are based from future editions of the book” and would apologize for not approaching those two men before publication for comment on statements suggesting they had connections with the KGB early in their careers.
Tomlinson represents Abramovich, Fridman and Aven, but denied at the start of Wednesday’s hearing that there was any “coordination” between the claimants. He said he had been hired by the three men “coincidentally and entirely independently.”
Tomlinson denied that the Russian defendants' claims were an attack on free speech and journalism, arguing that the book “holds itself out as a serious work of contemporary history, but unfortunately it repeats lazy inaccuracies.”
The hearing in front of judge Amanda Tipples is scheduled to last two days.