London (AFP) – Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich rejects “lazy inaccuracies” in a book that claims he took over Chelsea Football Club at the Kremlin’s behest, his lawyer said Wednesday at the start of a UK libel trial.

The billionaire is suing Reuters journalist Catherine Belton and publisher HarperCollins over their 2020 book “Putin’s People: How The KGB Took Back Russia And Then Took On The West”.

The best-selling book alleges that President Vladimir Putin has overseen a vast exodus of ill-gotten money to spread Russian influence abroad, including the purchase of Chelsea by Abramovich in 2003.

The two-day hearing in London groups claims for libel brought against Belton and HarperCollins by Russian state-owned energy giant Rosneft, and against HarperCollins by Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman.

Pyotr Aven, the head of Russian lender Alfa-Bank, has also brought a data protection claim against the publisher.

Lawyer Hugh Tomlinson is representing Abramovich, Fridman and Aven, but denied pre-trial coordination among the wealthy Russians. 

Abramovich did “not bring this claim lightly” but the book “unfortunately repeats lazy inaccuracies about his role in the events described”, Tomlinson told the hearing, at the High Court of England and Wales in central London.

– ‘Villainy’ –

He described the book as alleging that Abramovich was “cashier” to the family of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, and then “a custodian of slush funds” to Yeltsin’s successor Putin.

“The ordinary reasonable reader thinks there is a lot of villainy going on and Mr Abramovich is part of it,” the barrister said.

Abramovich in a rare personal statement released by his lawyers in March said that his action was taken over “various false allegations about me in the book”. 

These “are having a damaging effect, not only on my personal reputation, but also in respect of the activities of Chelsea Football Club”, he said.

The court was due to hear later from lawyers for HarperCollins and Belton, who was present at the start of the hearings.

When Abramovich brought his claim in March, the publisher said both it and Belton would “robustly defend the claim and the right to report on matters of considerable public interest”. 

HarperCollins said the book was “an authoritative, important and conscientiously sourced work on contemporary Russia, that was much praised on publication by experts in the field”.