Russian billionaire Abramovich denies buying Chelsea FC for Putin in high-profile defamation case

Russian billionaire Abramovich denies buying Chelsea FC for Putin in high-profile defamation case
By bne IntelliNews July 29, 2021

A lawyer for Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich told a hearing in a a defamation case on July 28 that Abramovich is not President Vladimir Putin’s “cashier” and he did not buy Chelsea Football Club on the president’s orders. 

Abramovich is suing both British journalist Catherine Belton and her publisher HarperCollins over Belton’s 2020 book “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West”. 

Abramovich said on launching the case in March that the book “contains a number of false and defamatory statements about me, including about my purchase, and the activities, of Chelsea Football Club.” 

Putin’s People has been widely praised for its thorough dive into the world surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin. Belton, a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, now a special correspondent for Reuters, conducted hundreds of interviews during the research for the book.

Among the claims made in the book is that Putin asked Abramovich, with whom he is well acquainted, to specifically buy Chelsea FC as a means of extending Russia’s soft power. Abramovich has denied the allegation.

As bne IntelliNews wrote earlier this year, the case could prove to be significant, as unverified allegations are regularly made against public figures deemed to be “close to Putin” and allegations of corruption and worse are regularly made against them without concrete evidence.

The aim of the hearing is to determine what a reasonable and ordinary reader would understand the allegedly defamatory statements to mean. The disputed statements will then form the basis of the defamation trial.

The billionaire’s lawyer, Hugh Tomlinson, told the court that passages in the book were clearly defamatory, according to newswire reports.

"What is said to be happening is that Mr Abramovich is making his wealth available to Putin... secretly to Putin and his cronies — that is the view the reasonable and ordinary reader would take," Tomlinson said, as reported by Reuters. 

Tomlinson also claimed the book relied on “unreliable” sources such as exiled oligarch and one-time Kremlin insider Sergei Pugachev, who first made the accusation to Belton during a September 2017 interview, but then made the same claim in a statement to the High Court in 2018 during a case brought against him by his former bank International Industrial Bank (IIB, known as MezhPromBank in Russian) that went bust and was nationalised in 2011.

HarperCollins’s lawyer Andrew Caldecott told the court that Abramovich’s wealth “was, to a substantial extent, on call when requested”. 

Lawyers for oil company Rosneft also submitted documents to the court on passages of the book concerning what Belton called "the attack" on Yukos, formerly Russia’s biggest oil company.

The court was also told that HarperCollins had agreed to settle with Russian businessmen Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, and will amend some passages in the book about them, Reuters reported.