Abramovich 'intimidated' Berezovsky into selling oil shares

3rd October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich was accused in a British court Monday of intimidating fellow Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky into selling him oil company shares at a large discount.

Berezovsky, who lives in exile in Britain, accuses Abramovich of breach of trust and breach of contract over the sale of shares in Russian oil company Sibneft, his lawyer told London's High Court at the opening of a trial.

The outspoken Kremlin critic is claiming more than $5 billion (£3.2 billion, 3.8 billion euros) in damages, charging that Abramovich forced him with threats to sell the shares at a fraction of their value.

Both men were in the London court on the first day of the trial, sitting at opposite ends of the packed courtroom.

The men worked together to acquire Sibneft in the chaotic years of the 1990s that followed the collapse of communism in Russia and became "wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most", Berezovsky's lawyer Laurence Rabinowitz said.

They remained good friends until Berezovsky, who had a high-profile in Russia through his control of media outlets, fell out with the leaders in the Kremlin and was forced to move abroad, the lawyer said.

Abramovich faced two choices, which were either to stay loyal to Berezovsky or betray him, said Rabinowitz.

"It is our case that Mr. Abramovich at that point demonstrated that he was a man to whom wealth and influence mattered more than friendship and loyalty and this has led him, finally, to go so far as to even deny that he and Mr. Berezovsky were actually ever friends," he said.

Abramovich used threats to force his fellow tycoon to sell his "very substantial interest" in Sibneft at a "very substantial under value", telling Berezovsky that if he did not sell the Kremlin would forcibly take the shares from him, said Rabinowitz.

Berezovsky fled to Britain in 2000 after falling out with then-president Vladimir Putin. Moscow has demanded his extradition but the British government has refused and granted him political asylum in 2003

In written arguments before the judge, Abramovich's lawyer Jonathan Sumption called for the claims against his client to be dismissed.

Sumption said allegations of threats were "wholly unfounded", adding that Berezovsky had made "scurrilous... and unjustified allegations of criminal and improper conduct on the part of Mr Abramovich".

The trial continues on Tuesday.

© 2011 AFP

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