Abramovich 'manipulated the truth' in evidence to £3.5bn trial

Chelsea FC owner accused of deceiving court as his three-month battle with rival oligarch nears its end

Tom Peck
Wednesday 18 January 2012 01:00 GMT
Roman Abramovich arriving at court yesterday
Roman Abramovich arriving at court yesterday (Reuters)

Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, was accused of "smear and innuendo" and a "cynical manipulation of evidence" as his epic three-month court battle against his former business partner Boris Berezovsky entered its final hours.

Both men were back at London's Commercial Court yesterday to hear closing submissions from Mr Berezovsky's barrister. Lawrence Rabinowitz, QC, said the key points of the so-called "battle of the oligarchs" had not changed since the trial began in October. But he said: "The dishonesty of Mr Abramovich and his key witnesses, their cynical maniupulation of evidence and indeed of the trial process, is perhaps the most important of the... points [the judge] will wish to have in mind when weighing up the evidence."

At stake is $6bn (£3.5bn) – the profits of the commodities companies the two men set up in Russia in the 1990s. Mr Abramovich, 45, has since outmanoeuvred Mr Berezovsky for control of these companies; Mr Berezovsky claims this was achieved through blackmail and intimidation sanctioned by the Kremlin.

Mr Rabinowitz dismissed Mr Abramovich's claim that Mr Berezovsky was involved in organised crime in Chechnya as "smear and innuendo". He said a suggestion made by Mr Abramovich and some of his key witnesses – among them Oleg Deripaska, the richest oligarch of all – that Mr Berezovsky, 65, attended a crucial meeting at the Dorchester Hotel in his dressing gown had been "shown to be utterly false".

At the heart of the case is $1.3bn paid to Mr Berezovsky in 2001 by Mr Abramovich. The Chelsea owner insists this money was a final instalment of krysha [protection money] paid to Mr Berezovsky, a key power-broker in Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin, for his political and physical protection as he set up Sibneft, the oil firm where he made his fortune.

Mr Berezovsky, however, claims the payment was for the forced sale of his shares in Sibneft at billions less than their market value, backed by the threat of their reappropriation by Vladimir Putin.

"Mr Abramovich has come up with a range of explanations for why, when in a position of great power and influence in Russia, he should pay £1.3bn to a political exile and enemy of the Russian President in order to terminate a non-binding agreement," Mr Rabinowitz said. "Those explanations range from the utterly bizarre, such as the fear that Mr Berezovsky might bounce back [in Russian politics] because he previously had recovered from hepataitis C, to the wholly implausible, such as that Mr Abramovich paid $1.3bn to Mr Berezovsky out of loyalty and respect.

"The payment was made to acquire Mr Berezovsky's ownership interests and that explains the size of the payment. If your ladyship is with us in relation to whose explanation for the $1.3bn is more likely, that I would suggest goes a long way towards assisting [you] with the resolution of this issue."

Mr Berezovsky alleges breach of trust and breach of contract, and is claiming more than £3bn in damages. Mr Abramovich denies the allegations and denies that Mr Berezovsky is entitled to damages. The hearing continues.

Decision time: The billionaire ... and the £93 watch

No watch is beyond the means of Roman Abramovich – yet he was spotted at court yesterday wearing a discontinued digital model costing £93.

The Finnish-made Polar M61 is designed for runners and has a chest strap that measures the wearer's heart rate, sending a signal to the watch.

It was not clear what Mr Abramovich's heart rate might have been on one of the last days of a trial in which he is being sued for £3.5bn in damages.

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