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Court is considering whether the US can seize a Russian yacht in Fiji

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – In the port of Lautoka in the heart of Fiji’s sugar cane region, five US federal agents boarded the Russian-owned Amadea, a luxury superyacht the length of a football field.

“They want to take 20 crew members and sail east!” The ship’s captain wrote in a distressed WhatsApp message on May 5 to lawyer Feizal Haniff, who represents the firm that legally owns the superyacht.

“When?” Haniff wrote back, court documents obtained by The Associated Press show. “Please stop. please hold can you hold i need a judge I’ll call everyone.”

The case underscores the delicate legal ground the US stands on as it seeks to seize assets from Russian oligarchs around the world. These intentions are welcomed by many governments and citizens opposed to the war in Ukraine, but some actions raise questions about the extent of US jurisdiction.

In Fiji, the agents boarded the ship after an initial legal victory in which a lower Fijian court granted registration of a US seizure warrant.

In Washington, the Justice Department hastily released a media release. “$300 million yacht belonging to sanctioned Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov seized from Fiji at US request,” it said.

But Haniff argued the US was hasty. Whatever evidence or suspicions the FBI had about the ship, Haniff argued they had no right to take control of it, let alone sail it away.

That’s because Haniff had already filed two appeals before the agents boarded the ship, arguing that the true owner was another wealthy Russian — a man who didn’t face sanctions — and that the US went to Fiji Mutual legal assistance laws would have no jurisdiction to confiscate the ship, at least until a court has determined who really owns the Amadea.

Fiji’s Court of Appeal decided to take the case and heard arguments on Wednesday. The Amadea is now back under the watchful eye of the Fijian police.

A boat captain looks at the super yacht Amadea where she is docked at Queens Wharf in Lautoka, Fiji.
A boat captain looks at the super yacht Amadea where she is docked at Queens Wharf in Lautoka, Fiji.
AP

The FBI had linked the Amadea to the Kerimov family through the alleged use of code names on board and the purchase of items such as a pizza oven and spa bed. The ship became a target for Task Force KleptoCapture, which was created in March to seize assets from Russian oligarchs and pressure Russia to end the war.

Court documents say the Amadea turned off its transponder shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine and sailed from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal to Mexico, arriving with over $100,000 in cash. It then sailed thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to Fiji.

The Justice Department said it didn’t believe the papers showed the Amadea was next headed for the Philippines, arguing that she was really destined for Vladivostok or elsewhere in Russia.

The department said they found a text message on a crew member’s phone: “We’re not going to Russia,” followed by a “Pst” emoji.

Court documents show that Millemarin Investments, a company represented by Haniff, is the legal owner of the Cayman Islands-flagged superyacht and that Millemarin is owned by Eduard Khudainatov, a former chairman and chief executive of Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled oil and gas company. Khudainatov, who faces no sanctions, submitted an affidavit to say he owns the Amadea.

The Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, the alleged owner of the Amadea.
The Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, the alleged owner of the Amadea.
Getty Images

When US agents boarded the ship, Haniff feared he would never get a chance to plead his case in court because the Amadea would have sailed to the US — maybe American Samoa, Hawaii, even San Francisco.

He prepared a fiery draft appeal accusing US authorities of being reckless with Fiji’s sovereignty after encountering a lower court judge who was “impressed” by the American warrant. He said they tried to bribe the yacht’s young crew members to sail them to the US and threatened to cancel the crew’s US visas.

“The behavior of the US authorities in Fiji in relation to the Amadea has been appalling,” he wrote in a draft he never filed because the Court of Appeals took up the case.

A Justice Department official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. agents who boarded the ship did so with a valid warrant and were arrested accompanied throughout by Fijian authorities.

There were “further procedures after the initial approval of the warrant,” the official acknowledged, adding that the US had acted properly under both US and Fijian law.

The official said other allegations such as bribery were categorically false.

“We are seeking contracts with various service providers to transport the ship,” the official said. “The characterization of these contract negotiations as anything other than just that is unfounded.”

Fiji originally closed the Amadea on April 13, 2022.
Fiji originally closed the Amadea on April 13, 2022.
FIJI SUN/AFP via Getty Images

In court documents, the FBI claims Kerimov, an economist and former Russian politician, is the real owner of the Amadea, which is 106 meters (348 feet) long and features a live lobster tank, a hand-painted piano, a swimming pool, and a large one helipad.

Kerimov made a fortune investing in Russian gold producer Polyus, with Forbes magazine putting his net worth at $15.6 billion.

The US first sanctioned him in 2018 after he was jailed in France and accused of money laundering, sometimes arriving with suitcases full of 20 million euros.

The US acknowledges that the paperwork appears to show Khudainatov is the owner, but says he is also the paper owner of a second and even larger superyacht, the Scheherazade, which has been linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The US question whether Khudainatov can really afford two superyachts with a total value of more than one billion dollars.

“The fact that Khudainatov is being held as the owner of two of the largest superyachts of all time, both associated with sanctioned individuals, suggests that Khudainatov is being used as a clean, unsanctioned straw owner to disguise true beneficial owners.” , the FBI wrote in a court affidavit.

Suleiman Kerimov is seen to the left of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to Sochi in 2019.
Suleiman Kerimov is seen to the left of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to Sochi in 2019.
Getty Images

The US claims it was Kerimov who secretly bought the Amadea through shell companies last year. The FBI said a search warrant in Fiji turned up messages on the ship’s computers pointing to Kerimov. Emails revealed that Kerimov’s children were aboard the ship that year and that the crew used code names – G0 for Kerimov, G1 for his wife, G2 for his daughter and so on.

The Kerimov family’s ownership was evident from changes they made to the superyacht, such as adding more electrical outlets in the bathrooms and their involvement in approving the new pizza oven and spa bed, the FBI said. The crew members discuss a possible “upcoming G0 guest trip” and realize he wants the fastest jet skis available – so they need to buy new jet skis.

In his appeal, Haniff argues the US case is based on hearsay and rumors spread by unnamed crew members and that there is no evidence Khudainatov cannot afford to invest in two superyachts.

The FBI’s evidence only shows that Kerimov’s family may have been guests on the boat, he said.

“This is flimsy stuff,” Haniff wrote in his appeal. “The super-rich are a tribe that lives a different life from the rest of us: they are given privileges and luxuries in goods and services far removed from ordinary experience. That says nothing to suggest ownership.”

The Court of Appeal is expected to decide within a week or two what will happen to the Amadea next.

https://nypost.com/2022/05/19/court-considers-whether-us-can-seize-a-russian-yacht-in-fiji/ Court is considering whether the US can seize a Russian yacht in Fiji

JACLYN DIAZ

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