Russian billionaires vs. British author: a court battle over Putin’s book begins

On Wednesday, the High Court in England will hear arguments from lawyers for four Russian billionaires, including Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich and state-owned oil firm Rosneft, about a book about President Vladimir Putin that they claim defames them.

In her book 2020, British journalist Catherine Belton chronicles Putin’s rise to power and how many of his former Soviet spy service associates rose to positions of wealth and influence after he won the top Kremlin job in 1999.

Lawyers for the businessmen will tell the court that passages in the book “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West”, published by HarperCollins, are defamatory. Abramovich is suing both HarperCollins and Belton, according to case details filed with the courts and tribunals service.

HarperCollins said it would “robustly defend this acclaimed and ground-breaking book and the right to report on matters of considerable public interest”.

Belton, a former Financial Times Moscow correspondent and now a Reuters special correspondent, declined to comment. Law firm Wiggin, which is representing HarperCollins and Belton, did not respond to a request for comment.

“The book falsely alleges that our client has acted corruptly, and makes false claims about our client’s purchase, and the activities, of Chelsea Football Club. Such claims are totally unacceptable and are without foundation,” Abramovich’s lawyers, Harbottle & Lewis, said on March 22.

In the same statement, Abramovich stated that “the false allegations in this book are having a damaging effect, not only on my personal reputation, but also on the activities of Chelsea Football Club.”

Abramovich’s spokeswoman declined to comment further. A request for comment was not returned by Harbottle & Lewis.

Rosneft (ROSN.MM), Russia’s largest oil producer, has also filed a defamation suit against HarperCollins and Belton. Carter-Ruck, the firm’s lawyers, did not respond to a request for comment.

Mikhail Fridman, a businessman, is suing HarperCollins for defamation and data protection. Pyotr Aven, his long-term business partner, is suing on data protection grounds.

According to a spokesman, both men regretted that the matter could not be resolved before Wednesday’s hearing.

“Ms Belton’s book, which has been promoted as a ‘definitive historical record’, contains inaccurate and offensive statements about Mr Aven and Mr Fridman,” the spokesman said. “It is important to them that the record is set straight.”

Businessman Shalva Chigirinsky is suing both HarperCollins and Belton for defamation. His lawyers, Taylor Wessing LLP, passed on to him a Reuters request for comment on the proceedings. He did not immediately respond.

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