Russian-Israeli businessman Roman Abramovich's legal battle against European Union (EU) sanctions commenced today in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. In a high-profile appeal, Abramovich's lawyers argued that the EU sanctions imposed on him were unfounded and solely a consequence of his prominent status as a well-known Russian entrepreneur.
Presenting their case before a panel of five judges, Abramovich's legal team comprising Thierry Bonntick, Carsten Zatschler, and Stephane Bonfassi made compelling arguments highlighting the entrepreneur's international recognition, predominantly stemming from his ownership of Chelsea Football Club over the past two decades. They emphasized that Abramovich's fame was primarily associated with his ownership of the club and not solely due to his Russian heritage.
Abramovich, a Russian-born Israeli and Jewish billionaire, is well-known as the former owner of Chelsea Football Club in London and the primary owner of the private investment company Millhouse LLC. With Russian, Israeli, and Portuguese citizenship, he previously served as the Governor of the Chukotka region from 2000 to 2008.
Abramovich’s fortune, estimated at $14.5 billion in 2021, has experienced fluctuations, reaching $6.9 billion in 2022 and bouncing back to $9.2 billion in 2023.
The attorneys stated, "Roman Abramovich might be one of the most well-known Russians in Europe – this fame has little to do with his Russian origins, but rather with the fact that for 20 years he was the owner of Chelsea Football Club. Becoming the owner of Chelsea FC made him a household name across Europe, and to some extent the world, at least where the Premier League is watched."
Contesting the validity of the EU sanctions, Abramovich's legal team questioned the lack of substantial evidence presented by the European Council in support of the sanctions imposed last year. They argued that the council based its decision on vague articles from blogs and the press, lacking any substantive backing.
Lawyers argue Abramovich did not benefit from decisions made by Russian authorities
The lawyers highlighted that Abramovich had not benefited from decisions made by Russian authorities, and they challenged the European Council's failure to present any evidence suggesting otherwise. They further pointed out that the council's decision relied on historical events with no contemporary relevance, contrary to previous rulings requiring sanctions to be based on current and relevant information.
The lawyers explained, "The answer is no, because as we will demonstrate today, he was not sanctioned because of evidence relating to the criteria, he was sanctioned simply because politically, the most famous Russian businessman had to be even if this is a manifestation of error."
In an additional argument, Abramovich's lawyers criticized the council for using his response to Ukraine's request for mediation in the ongoing conflict as a justification for the sanctions. They deemed this reasoning absurd, considering Abramovich's extensive humanitarian undertakings and involvement in negotiating complex issues such as humanitarian corridors and the grain deal.
The lawyers stated, "Regarding one of the Council’s main arguments surrounding Mr. Abramovich’s holding in the company Evraz, our client was not a majority shareholder, does not control or influence the activities of the company and that the company itself is not sanctioned by the EU." They added, "Legal precedents in the EU state that shareholding, even if a majority, does not constitute a business activity. This, the lawyers claimed, means that Mr. Abramovich’s shares in Evraz cannot be considered a business activity."
Ahead of the trial, a spokesperson for Abramovich expressed confidence in the fairness and objectivity of the European Union Court of Justice in reviewing the case. The spokesperson stated, "Mr. Abramovich is confident that the European Union Court of Justice will review the case fairly and objectively."
In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Abramovich, along with six other Russian businessmen, was sanctioned by the UK. His UK assets were frozen, and a travel ban was imposed on him. The British government justified the sanctions by claiming that the oligarch had alleged ties to the Kremlin. Abramovich, on the other hand, denied having close connections to Putin and the Kremlin. Subsequently, Australia and the European Union also imposed sanctions on him, mirroring Britain’s actions.