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UK journalist sued by Russian billionaires over Putin book

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with head of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, at the Kremlin in Moscow, on September 22, 2020. (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev and Mikhail KLIMENTYEV / Sputnik / AFP) (Photo by MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

LONDON (AP) — A British journalist and her publisher faced defamation claims in a London court on Wednesday from billionaire Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich and other wealthy Russians over a book about the rise of President Vladimir Putin.

Catherine Belton’s book, “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West,” charts the rise to wealth and power of former KGB agent Putin and a circle of associates after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Abramovich says the book’s claim that he purchased soccer team Chelsea in 2003 at Putin’s direction is “false and defamatory.” He is suing Belton, a former Financial Times correspondent in Moscow, and publisher HarperCollins at the High Court.

Belton is also being sued for libel by Russia’s state-owned energy firm, Rosneft, while the publisher is facing a libel suit from Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman. HarperCollins is also being sued by Russian banker Petr Aven for alleged data protection breaches.

Free speech groups have expressed alarm at the case, saying it is too easy for wealthy people to use Britain’s courts to silence criticism. HarperCollins has said it plans to “robustly” defend itself.

British lawyer Hugh Tomlinson represents Abramovich, Fridman and Aven. He denied Wednesday that there was any “coordination” between the claimants. Tomlinson said the three men retained him “coincidentally and entirely independently.”

The lawyer also denied the claims were an attack on free speech and journalism, arguing that the book “holds itself out as a serious work of contemporary history, but unfortunately it repeats lazy inaccuracies.”

The court hearing in front of judge Amanda Tipples is scheduled to last two days.