Claims that Roman Abramovich, Chelsea Football Club Ltd’s billionaire owner, was directed to buy the team by Russian President Vladimir Putin to infiltrate the British political elite are “profoundly defamatory,” his lawyers said.
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 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.
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.
Lawyers for the author and publisher 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.
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.