The wealthy Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has not bought British football club Chelsea to corrupt the West, let alone that he is Vladimir Putin’s personal banker. This opened the defense of Abramovich’s lawyer in a controversial libel case that started this week at the Supreme Court in London.
In it, the Kremlin confidant Abramovich sues British journalist Catherine Belton and her publisher Harper Collins for libel. Belton was a correspondent in Moscow between 2003 and 2013 for, among others, Bloomberg and the Financial Times.
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Last year, Belton published the book Putin’s people. How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West. It is a detailed account of how Vladimir Putin rose to the presidency and managed to control the Russian economy and politics over twenty years from himself and a small group of Petersburg intimates, and how they then used the stolen billions to help British politicians corrupt corporations and even judges.
Belton bases her meticulously documented account on dozens of sources inside and outside Russia. Her most important interlocutor is the disgraced banker Sergei Pugachev, who claims to have acted as a close confidant of Putin for years and thus says he is aware of many notorious deals between Putin and his inner circle to increase their power and wealth. Abramovich is known as one of Putin’s most loyal aides. Over the years, he amassed a fortune of more than 12 billion dollars, with which he pays for an extravagant lifestyle. In 2010, for example, he bought the third largest sailing yacht on earth, worth 350 million euros.
Beloved football club
An important focus of the lawsuit is the passage in which Abramovich is accused by Pugachev of having bought Chelsea football club in 2003 on behalf of Putin. This is for the British hearts and minds to win for the Russian cause. “Putin personally told me about his plan to buy Chelsea to increase Russia’s influence and prestige, not only among the elite but among ordinary Britons,” Pugachev confided to Belton in an interview in 2017. According to Pugachev, Putin would have approached him first. to “infiltrate England.” Putin would have believed that buying the beloved football club would be like buying up all British pubs, the oligarch said. An additional benefit would be that the purchase would increase Russian influence in FIFA. The club came into Russian hands for 60 million pounds.
Although Belton’s book is not the first to examine the close Kremlin relations of the loyal 54-year-old Abramovich, the businessman did not let the spectacular accusations pass. Furious, he went to court to demand rectification of no fewer than 26 passages in the book, in which he would be wrongly portrayed as an extension and personal cashier of Putin.
It is feared that gains for plaintiffs will deter journalists from investigating
At first he hung out with his no less powerful fellow oligarchs Michaïl Friedman (of the Russian Alfa Bank) and Pyotr Aven. However, Harper Collins managed to reach a settlement with them out of court. Belton is also being sued in another lawsuit by the Russian state oil company Rosneft.
Abramovich refused to settle. At the first hearing last Wednesday, his lawyer Hugh Tomlinson said Belton’s description of the alleged corrupt relationship between Putin and Abramovich is clearly “defamatory.” He also accused her of “lazy carelessness” in her analysis of Abramovich’s position in Russia. The lawyer added that his client had not gone to court lightly, and was aware that the move could be interpreted as an “attack on public interest journalism,” he said. The Guardian.
In Tomlinson, the wealthy oligarch has hired a well-known and feared lawyer with extensive experience in privacy, libel cases and defending the reputation of celebrities. In previous years, the 67-year-old lawyer stopped publishing Prince Charles’ diaries and defended several stars whose phones had been hacked.
Belton has received a lot of support from colleagues and from international politics in recent weeks. Many fear that gains for the plaintiffs will result in more lawsuits in Russia and elsewhere and deter journalists from investigating corruption cases. In Russia it is common for powerful oligarchs, who are criticized by the media, to fend off lawsuits against often defenseless journalists. Earlier this year, the European Commission called for new measures to protect journalistic freedoms to better protect investigative journalists within the EU against such practices.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 30, 2021