Four Russian billionaires and the country’s state-owned energy giant have sued HarperCollins over a book published last year on the rise of Vladimir Putin.
The legal assault on the book, Putin’s people, came in a wave of cases brought to the courts in London, all within weeks of each other, including by Mikhail Fridman, the banking, retail and telecommunications mogul, and Roman Abramovich, the owner from Chelsea Football Club.
Defamation and data protection lawsuits name the UK branch of HarperCollins alongside the book’s author, Catherine Belton, a former Financial Times reporter. Putin’s people, published in April 2020, details the Russian president’s rise to power and his relationship with wealthy oligarchs.
The litigation highlights the high-stakes nature of writing about powerful oligarchs and the role of London-based lawyers in defending the interests of the global elite. The law firms acting for the plaintiffs are Carter-Ruck, CMS, Harbottle & Lewis and Taylor Wessing.
HarperCollins described Belton’s book as “authoritative, important and conscientiously sourced work.” “We will vigorously defend this acclaimed and groundbreaking book and the right to report on matters of considerable public interest,” the publisher added. Belton made no separate comment.
Abramovich, who filed the first complaint, to Marcha said that “his action was not taken lightly” and that the book contained “false and defamatory” statements about him. Court documents have shown that Abramovich’s libel lawsuit disputes an allegation that Putin ordered the acquisition of Chelsea in 2003 as well as other allegations. A spokesperson for Abramovich made no further comment.
The book is based on the claim of exiled Russian billionaire Sergei Pugachev, who was once a member of Putin’s inner circle before breaking up, fleeing the country and becoming a dissident. In a 2017 case, a High Court judge described Pugachev as an unreliable witness.
The other plaintiffs, whose actions were not previously reported, are Fridman, his longtime business partner Peter Aven, Russian real estate mogul Shalva Chigirinsky and Rosneft, the Kremlin-controlled oil producer. Aven filed its claim under the Data Protection Act. Court documents relating to these cases are not yet available.
Lawsuits followed quickly in March and April, around the one-year deadline under UK law for libel actions.
“We can confirm that neither Mr. Aven nor Mr. Fridman was aware of the other lawsuits you referred to,” a spokesperson for Fridman said in a statement. “They had no contact and did not coordinate a legal strategy with the other plaintiffs or their lawyers.
“The files of Messrs. Aven and Fridman were filed within the applicable limitation periods and only after the defendants (HarperCollins) refused to discuss a series of corrective measures suggested by the lawyers acting for Messrs. Aven and Fridman.” , added the spokesperson.
Rosneft did not respond to a request for comment. Chigirinsky could not be reached immediately for comment through his lawyers.
Jessica Ní Mhainín, of Index on Censorship, a group that campaigns for free speech, said London courts were becoming the venue of choice for legal action aimed at “crushing critical journalism, not just in UK, but worldwide ”.
She added that the UK is home to a global industry that benefits from these lawsuits against journalists, and called for the introduction of reforms.