A referee has ruled that a series of passages in the best-selling book Putin’s People convey a defamatory opinion against Roman Abramovich, including an allegation that he bought Chelsea Football Club on Vladimir Putin’s order.
The Russian oligarch said he was slandered by 26 specific passages in the book by journalist Catherine Belton, all of whom, he says, convey untrue meanings about him.
In a preliminary ruling on Wednesday, Ms Justice Tipples said an ordinary reader would understand these passages as meaning that Abramovich had bought the Premier League club for £ 150 million in 2003 “under the Kremlin’s leadership”.
She said the book suggested that Abramovich was “under Putin’s control” and that the oligarch was obliged to “make the fortunes of his business empire available for use by President Putin and his regime”.
If Abramovich failed to do so, the book suggested, he could have “lost his wealth to the Russian state” or been banished or imprisoned, the judge said in a 34-page ruling.
Tipples stressed that the court only at this stage judges by opinion. It did not decide whether the allegations about Abramovich or anyone else were true.
Abramovich is one of three Russian tycoons who initiated libel proceedings against Belton and her publisher, HarperCollins, because of a book widely recognized as the final 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 organizations to urge the British government to investigate how foreign billionaires use libel courts.
Two of the oligarchs have since settled their lawsuits. But Abramovich and Rosneft pressed on with their complaints, which are likely to be heard next year in the high court.
On Wednesday, the judge ruled in a ruling on what the disputed paragraphs meant that three out of four passages that Rosneft complained about were not defamatory. They included arguments that passengers said Rosneft had acquired the Yukos oil company and swallowed its assets at a knockdown price in a manipulated auction.
The judge said Putin’s people also claimed that Rosneft’s listing on the London Stock Exchange in 2006 was only a success because “the Kremlin or the KGB” had put pressure on potential investors to buy shares. This meaning was “not defamatory” by Rosneft, she ruled. A claim that Rosneft paid too much for an oil company in a 2003 agreement was potentially defamatory, she said.
In a statement, HarperCollins stressed that Abramovich “has not won his claim” and said Putin’s people were a “praised work of significant 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 dismissed a complaint in its entirety. Today’s preliminary ruling only determines what ordinary readers will understand what the relevant passages in the book mean. A trial is not expected to take place for at least a year. “
A spokesman for Abramovich said he welcomed the verdict, 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 report on recent events in Russia, as argued by her lawyers in relation to opinion, was “in my opinion the right one”. But she also said the defense relied on a “forensic” and “over-elaborate” interpretation of what the book said.
Abramovich complained about several other matters. They included that the book suggested that he had bought $ 300 million in Rosneft shares “under the Kremlin’s leadership” so that the company’s listing would not fail, and that he had moved to New York “under the direction” of Putin so that “Russia could influence the family of Donald Trump, ”the judge said.
Both episodes were defamatory, she stated. The same was a further allegation that Abramovich had acted as “treasurer of 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 unfounded”.
Neither Belton nor HarperCollins have yet been required to file a defense, so no substantive defense has been raised.
Belton spent seven years writing for Putin’s people and was based in Moscow as bureau chief for the Financial Times. Last week, she was named 2021 excellent investigative journalist in awards named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison.