Roman Abramovich wins first round of libel battle over Putin’s People book

A judge has ruled that a number of passages in the bestselling book, Putin’s People, convey defamatory meaning against Roman Abramovich, including the claim that he bought Chelsea Football Club on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian oligarch said he was defamed by 26 specific paragraphs in the book by journalist Catherine Pelton, all of which he says convey incorrect meanings about him.

In a preliminary ruling on Wednesday, Mrs. Justice Tables said the lay reader would understand these sections to mean that Abramovich bought the Premier League club for £150m in 2003 “under the direction of the Kremlin”.

She said the book indicated that Mr. Abramovich was “under Putin’s control” and that the oligarchy was “compelled” to “make the wealth from his business empire available for the use of President Putin and his regime”.

In a 34-page ruling, the judge said that if Abramovich failed to do so, he could have “lost his fortune to the Russian state” or be exiled or imprisoned.

Ms. Gostick Tables emphasized that the court was only, at this point, adjudicating the meaning. He was not deciding whether the allegations about Mr. Abramovich or anyone else were true.

Abramovich is one of three Russian emperors to initiate libel proceedings against Pelton and her publisher, Harper Collins, over a book widely acclaimed as the definitive work of the Putin era. Russia’s state oil company Rosneft, which is run by close Putin ally Igor Sechin, has also filed a lawsuit.

The case has prompted press freedom organizations to call on the UK government to examine how foreign billionaires use libel courts.

Since then, two oligarchs have settled their legal proceedings. But Abramovich and Rosneft have gone ahead with their complaints, which are likely to be heard next year in the Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, in a decision on what the disputed clauses mean, the judge ruled that three of the four passages Rosneft complained about were not defamatory. It included arguments that the clips said that Rosneft had seized Yukos oil company and acquired its assets at an approximate price at a fraudulent auction.

The judge said Putin People also claimed that Rosneft’s 2006 listing on the London Stock Exchange was successful only because “the Kremlin or the KGB” pressured potential investors to buy the shares. It ruled that this meaning was not defamatory to Rosneft’s reputation. She said the allegation that Rosneft overpaid an oil company in a 2003 deal amounted to defamation.

In a statement, HarperCollins asserted that Mr. Abramovich “did not win his claim” and said Putin’s people were a “recognized act of great public interest”. The publisher added: “The judge, in connection with most of Mr. Abramovich’s complaints, found that he had exaggerated the meaning of the words he had complained about and dismissed one complaint in its entirety. Today’s preliminary ruling only decides what ordinary readers will understand the relevant passages in the book. No trial is expected for a year at least “.

A spokesman for Mr Abramovich said he welcomed the ruling, which found Pelton’s book made “nine libel allegations” about the oligarch including “false allegations” about the nature of his purchase of Chelsea.

The judge said Beltone’s account of recent events in Russia, as her lawyers argued regarding meaning, was “in my view, correct.” But she also said the defense relied on a “too legitimate” and “excessive” interpretation of what was in the book.

Mr. Abramovich complained about several other issues. It included that the book indicated that he had bought $300 million of Rosneft shares “under the supervision of the Kremlin” so that the company’s offering would not fail, and that he had moved to New York “at the direction” of Mr. Putin so that “Russia could influence the Donald Trump family,” the judge said.

It ruled that both sections were defamatory. So was the other claim that Mr. Abramovich had acted as “the treasurer of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his family providing them with money from his business empire to use for their own purposes,” the judge wrote.

At the first hearing, Mr. Abramovich’s lawyer said the writers repeated “lazy mistakes about Abramovich’s role in various events” and made false and harmful statements about him that were “completely baseless”.

Neither Pelton nor Harper Collins has yet been asked to provide a defense, so no core defenses have been raised.

Bilton spent seven years writing “Putin’s People” and was based in Moscow as bureau chief for the Financial Times. Last week, she was named the Outstanding Investigative Journalist of 2021 in awards named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison. – guardian

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