A judge has ruled that a number of passages in the bestselling book Putin’s People convey a defamatory meaning against Roman Abramovich, including a claim that he bought Chelsea football club on Vladimir Putin’s orders.
The Russian oligarch said he was defamed by 26 specific passages in the book by the journalist Catherine Belton, all of which he says convey untrue meanings about him.
In a preliminary ruling on Wednesday, Mrs Justice Tipples said an ordinary reader would understand those sections to mean Abramovich had bought the Premier League club for £150m in 2003 “under the Kremlin’s direction”.
She said the book suggested Abramovich was “under the control of Putin” and that the oligarch was obliged “to make the fortune from his business empire available for the use of President Putin and his regime”.
If Abramovich failed to do so, the book implied, he could have “lost his wealth to the Russian state” or been exiled or jailed, the judge said in a 34-page ruling.
Tipples emphasised that the court was only, at this stage, adjudicating on meaning. It was not deciding whether the allegations made about Abramovich or anyone else were true.
Abramovich is one of three Russian tycoons who initiated libel proceedings against Belton and her publisher, HarperCollins, over a book widely acclaimed as the definitive work on the Putin era. The Russian state oil company Rosneft, run by Putin’s close ally Igor Sechin, has also sued.
The case prompted press freedom organisations to call on the UK government to examine how foreign billionaires are using libel courts.
Two of the oligarchs have since settled their legal actions. But Abramovich and Rosneft pressed ahead with their complaints, which are likely to be heard next year in the high court.
On Wednesday, in a decision on what the disputed paragraphs meant, the judge ruled that three out of four passages complained of by Rosneft were not defamatory. They included arguments that the passages said Rosneft had appropriated the Yukos oil company and gobbled up its assets at a knockdown price in a rigged auction.
The judge said Putin’s People also alleged Rosneft’s 2006 listing on the London Stock Exchange was a success only because the “Kremlin or KGB” had put pressure on potential investors to buy shares. This meaning was “not defamatory” of Rosneft, she ruled. A claim Rosneft overpaid for an oil company in a 2003 deal was potentially defamatory, she said.
In a statement HarperCollins emphasised that Abramovich “has not won his claim” and said Putin’s People was an “acclaimed work of considerable public interest”. The publisher added: “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.”
A spokesperson for Abramovich said he welcomed the ruling, which found that Belton’s book made “nine defamatory allegations” about the oligarch including “false allegations” about the nature of his purchase of Chelsea.
The judge said Belton’s account of recent events in Russia, as argued by her lawyers in relation to meaning, was “in my view, the right one”. But she also said the defence relied on a “too forensic” and “overelaborate” interpretation of what the book said.
Abramovich complained of several other matters. They included that the book suggested he had bought $300m of Rosneft shares “under the Kremlin’s direction” so the company’s flotation would not fail, and that he had moved to New York “at the direction” of Putin so “Russia could influence the family of Donald Trump”, the judge said.
Both sections were defamatory, she ruled. So was a further claim that Abramovich had acted as “cashier to the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his family providing them with money from his own business empire to use for their own private purposes”, the judge wrote.
At the initial hearing, Abramovich’s lawyer said the book repeated “lazy inaccuracies about Abramovich’s role in various events” and made false and damaging statements about him which were “completely without foundation”.
Neither Belton nor HarperCollins have yet been required to file a defence so no substantive defences have been raised.
Belton spent seven years writing Putin’s People and was based in Moscow as the bureau chief for the Financial Times. Last week she was named the 2021 outstanding investigative journalist in awards named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in jail.
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