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Abramovich's Libel Case Over 'Putin's People' Book Begins In London

Russian-born billionaire Roman Abramovich (file photo)
Russian-born billionaire Roman Abramovich (file photo)

A former Moscow correspondent and the publisher of her book on the ascent of Russian President Vladimir Putin have defended themselves in a London court against a defamation claim brought by Russian-born billionaire Roman Abramovich.

The book from 2020 by Catherine Belton -- Putin’s People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West -- chronicles Putin's rise from his KGB career to the Kremlin and the circle of former Soviet elites around him.

Abramovich, a dual Russian-Israeli national who owns the Chelsea soccer club, is challenging a claim in the book that he purchased the club in 2003 at Putin's direction.

Abramovich's lawyer, Hugh Tomlinson, told Britain's High Court that the book contains "lazy inaccuracies."

He said the book gives the impression the Chelsea purchase was "part of a scheme to corrupt the West...aimed at building a blockhold in the United Kingdom for Russian influence.”

A lawyer for the author and the publisher, HarperCollins, countered Tomlinson's claim on July 28 -- saying readers are not necessarily likely to conclude that Abramovich was doing Putin's bidding but that “there are grounds to suspect" there was possible Kremlin influence.

"What is said to be happening is that Mr. Abramovich is making his wealth available to Putin...secretly to Putin and his cronies -- that is the view the reasonable and ordinary reader would take," the lawyer, Andrew Caldecott, said.

The book includes a source "firmly" denying such a connection, Caldecott added.

Caldecott said Abramovich faced possible ruin if he failed to comply with the demands of Putin's Kremlin.

"Mr. Abramovich's wealth was, to a substantial extent, on call when requested," Caldecott said.

A former Financial Times correspondent, Belton is also being sued for libel by Russia's state-owned energy giant Rosneft.

The publisher, HarperCollins, was also reportedly targeted in lawsuits by other Russian businessmen Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven.

But Tomlinson, who has also represented those two men, told the London court on July 28 that those suits have already been settled.

He said the cases were not coordinated.

With reporting by Reuters and AP
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