An allegation that Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea FC on Vladimir Putin’s orders in a plot to gain influence in the West is defamatory, a High Court judge has ruled.
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.
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Belton, the former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, said 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 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 Belton and HarperCollins, pointed out that the reference to Abramovich being a cashier was “in quotation marks, suggesting it is someone else’s observation”.
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 Abramovich.
In a ruling on Wednesday, she found that readers of the book would understand 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 found all nine of the meanings were defamatory against Abramovich.
She also ruled that the allegations in the book are presented as statements of fact, rather than expressions of opinion as HarperCollins and Belton had argued.
Following the judgment, 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.”
In a statement following the ruling, HarperCollins said: “HarperCollins is carefully considering the judgment on the meaning hearing handed down this morning by Mrs Justice Tipples regarding the book Putin’s People by Catherine Belton, an acclaimed work of considerable public interest.
“We are pleased that the judge has found three of the four passages complained of by the Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft do not bear a meaning defamatory of the company and therefore will not proceed, and that several serious meanings in Mr Abramovich’s claim have also been rejected.”
A group of 19 press freedom and journalists’ organisations have raised serious concerns about the case, claiming it amounted to a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (SLAPP), a type of legal action used by wealthy and powerful entities to silence journalists and other public watchdogs.
The groups, including Article 19, the National Union of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship, said: “SLAPPs are used to drain their targets of as much time, money, and energy as possible in order to bully them into silence.”
They added: “We, once again, urge the UK government to consider measures, including legislative reforms, that would protect public watchdogs from being subject to burdensome, lengthy, and financially draining legal actions, which can stifle public debate.
“Our democracy relies on their ability to hold power to account.”
Picture: Reuters / Dylan Martinez / Livepic