Four Russian billionaires and state-owned energy giants have filed a lawsuit against HarperCollins over a book published last year about the rise of Vladimir Putin.
The legal attack on the book, Putin’s people, came several cases brought to the London court, all within a few weeks each, with Mikhail Fridman, the tycoon of banking, retail and telecoms, and Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club.
The libel and data protections sue HarperCollins ’UK arm with the book’s author Catherine Belton, a former Financial Times journalist. Putin’s people, released in April 2020, details the rise to power of the Russian president and his relationship with the wealthy oligarchs.
Litigation underscores the high -stakes nature of writing about powerful oligarchs and the role of London -based lawyers in defending the interests of the world’s elites. The law firms acting for the claimants are Carter-Ruck, CMS, Harbottle & Lewis, and Taylor Wessing.
HarperCollins described Belton’s book as an “authoritative, important and conscientiously obtained work”. “We will strongly defend the recognized and damaged book and the right to report matters of public interest,” the publisher added. Belton had no other comment.
Abramovich, who filed the first case, to March stated that his “action was not lightly made” and that the book contained “false and destructive” statements about him. Court documents show the contradiction in Abramovich’s libel suit is a claim that Putin ordered his 2003 takeover of Chelsea as well as other charges. A spokesman for Abramovich had no further comment.
The book takes away the claim that exiled billionaire Sergei Pugachev, who was once a member of Putin’s inner circle before he fell, fled the country, and became embroiled in controversy. In a 2017 case, a High Court judge described Pugachev as an unreliable witness.
Other claimants, whose actions have not been proposed before, are Fridman, his longtime business partner Peter Aven, Russian real estate tycoon Shalva Chigirinsky, and Rosneft, the Kremlin -controlled oil producer. Aven brought his claim under data protection law. Court documents for those cases are not yet available.
The lawsuits are in succession in March and April, with almost a one-year deadline in UK law for libel actions.
“We can confirm that neither Mr. Aven nor Mr. Fridman has any knowledge of the other lawsuits you have mentioned,” a spokesman for Fridman said in a statement. “They did not contact, and did not coordinate a legal strategy with, the other complainants or their attorneys.
“The cases of Mr. Aven and Mr. Fridman were filed within the applicable limitation periods and after the defendants (HarperCollins) refused to discuss a variety of remedial actions proposed by the attorneys acting for to Mr. Aven and Mr. Fridman, “the spokesman added.
Rosneft did not respond to a request for comment. Chigirinsky could not immediately be reached for comment through his attorneys.
Jessica Ní Mhainín of Index on Censorship, a group that campaigns for free expression, says London courts have become the venue of choice for legal action designed to “eliminate critical journalism, not just in the UK, but around the world ”.
He added that the UK was hiding a global industry that profited from lawsuits against journalists, and called for the introduction of reforms.