A British judge has found that a book that claimed Russian-Israeli oligarch Roman Abramovich bought London's Chelsea soccer club on the Kremlin's orders as part of a plot to gain influence in the United Kingdom were defamatory after he sued for libel.
In her critically acclaimed 2020 book, British journalist Catherine Belton describes Vladimir Putin's rise to power and how many former intelligence agents gained positions of wealth and influence after he secured control of the Kremlin in 1999.
Among the claims in Putin's People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West is that Putin has used corrupt money to spread influence abroad, including Abramovich's purchase of Chelsea in 2003.
Judge Amanda Tipples was asked to determine the "natural and ordinary" meaning of the allegations about Abramovich in a first-round libel claim. She said on November 24 that the court was only deciding on the meaning of the passages and not whether or not the allegations made in the book were true or not.
The passages will form the basis of a defamation trial, where the former Financial Times Moscow correspondent and publisher will have to defend their use.
In the ruling, Tipples found that readers of the book would understand Abramovich to be "under the control of President Vladimir Putin and, on the directions of President Putin and the Kremlin, he has had to make the fortune from his business empire available for the use of President Putin and his regime."
"The claimant has had little choice but to comply with these directions because, if he had not done so, he would have lost his wealth to the Russian state and could have been exiled or jailed."
Tipples also said an ordinary reader would understand the book to allege "the claimant purchased Chelsea Football Club in 2003 at the direction of President Putin so that Russia could gain acceptance and influence in the U.K."
Abramovich's lawyer, Hugh Tomlinson, told the court in July that readers of the book would conclude that Abramovich "had been used as the acceptable face of a corrupt and dangerous regime" and had a corrupt relationship with Putin, acting as his "cashier."
However, Andrew Caldecott, representing the defendants, pointed out that the reference to Abramovich being a cashier was "in quotation marks, suggesting it is someone else's observation."
Caldecott also told the court that the book "records a firm denial from a 'person close to Abramovich'" about the claim the billionaire bought Chelsea on the Kremlin's orders.
The judge also ruled a reader would understand that the billionaire moved to New York on Putin's orders to try to influence former U.S. President Donald Trump's family on Russia's behalf.
Following the judgment, an Abramovich spokesperson said: "We welcome today's judgment, which rules that the book Putin's People indeed makes several defamatory allegations about Mr. Abramovich, including false allegations about the nature of the purchase of Chelsea Football Club."
"Today's judgment further underscores the need for the false and defamatory claims about Mr. Abramovich to be corrected as soon as possible," the spokesperson added.
A spokesperson for the publishing house said, "HarperCollins is carefully considering the judgment on the meaning hearing handed down this morning by Mrs. Justice Tipples regarding the book Putin's People by Catherine Belton, an acclaimed work of considerable public interest.”
HarperCollins and Belton are also being sued for libel by Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft because of the book.
Tipples also ruled that one of four claims concerning Rosneft's purchase of an oil company was defamatory.