Abramovich Rejects Claim Putin Ordered Him to Buy Chelsea FC
(Bloomberg) -- Claims that Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club Ltd., was directed to buy the team by Russian President Vladimir Putin to infiltrate the British political elite are “profoundly defamatory,” his lawyers told a judge in London.
Abramovich sued Catherine Belton, the author of “Putin’s People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West,” which was published by HarperCollins, over the allegations.
The Russian, now worth about $19 billion, built his fortune from dividends and sales of privatized assets acquired from the former Soviet Union, including Sibneft and Aeroflot. He bought Chelsea in 2003 and has poured tens if not hundreds of millions of British pounds into recruiting top players to help it win championships in the U.K. and Europe.
Abramovich was accused by Belton in her book of buying Chelsea at the “secret discretion of Putin to infiltrate and corrupt the U.K. political elite,” Abramovich’s lawyer Hugh Tomlinson said during a London hearing on Wednesday. Abramovich was also described by the author as “Putin’s cashier,” and one of the “Kremlin’s trusted custodians,” Tomlinson said.
“Mr. Abramovich doesn’t bring this claim lightly,” the lawyer said. The book “repeats lazy inaccuracies” and “all he wants to do is set the record straight.”
Tomlinson said the book’s claims present “someone who is buying a football club ostensibly for sporting reasons” as someone secretly directed to boost the influence of Russia’s government.
Lawyers for Belton and HarperCollins said in court documents that the claim Abramovich bought the club to “infiltrate, manipulate and corrupt the British elite” didn’t mean “bribing the elite to do any specific discreditable or unlawful act” as distinct from the book’s thesis that Putin was gaining greater global acceptance.
They argued that the judge must look at the meaning of the words written in context and how a “reasonable reader” would interpret them.
“In a work of political history with multiple quoted sources, the line between interpretation and opinion on the one hand and bare fact on the other may not always be easy to draw,” Belton’s lawyers said in court documents.
Abramovich is no stranger to U.K. courts having won a high profile spat with the late Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky in 2012. Berezovsky claimed he lost billions of dollars because he was intimidated by Abramovich into selling stakes in two Russian companies.
Since then, commercial and family courts have played host to several disputes involving some of the richest and most notorious names of the post-Soviet Union era in a bid to secure verdicts from a court system they see as fair.
Belton and Harper Collins are also being sued for libel by Rosneft Oil Co. PJSC, a Russian state-owned energy company. Oligarch Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, a businessman, settled similar claims halfway through the hearing on Wednesday, Tomlinson told the court.
As part of the settlement HarperCollins agreed to amend some statements in the book. The court was also told the publisher would post a statement apologizing for not seeking earlier comment from the businessmen over allegations they had connections with the KGB in the 1980s.
Abramovich’s spokesperson at Chelsea declined to comment on the case. HarperCollins did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The judge will make a preliminary ruling on the meaning of the statements made about Abramovich, Rosneft and Fridman in the book, which will form the basis of a trial in the case.
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