WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- The United States on Friday won the latest round of a legal battle to seize a $325-million Russian-owned superyacht in Fiji, with the case now appearing headed for the Pacific nation's top court.
The case has highlighted the thorny legal ground the U.S. finds itself on as it tries to seize assets of Russian oligarchs around the world. Those intentions are welcomed by many governments and citizens who oppose the war in Ukraine, but some actions are raising questions about how far U.S. jurisdiction extends.
Fiji's Court of Appeal on Friday dismissed an appeal by Feizal Haniff, who represents the company that legally owns the superyacht Amadea. Haniff had argued the U.S. had no jurisdiction under Fiji’s mutual assistance laws to seize the vessel, at least until a court sorted out who really owned the Amadea.
Haniff said he now plans to take the case to Fiji’s Supreme Court and will apply for a court order to stop U.S. agents sailing the Amadea from Fiji before the appeal is heard.
As part of its ruling, the appeals court ordered that its judgment not take effect for seven days, presumably to give time for any appeals to be filed.
The U.S. argues that its investigation has found that behind various fronts, the Cayman Islands-flagged luxury yacht is really owned by the sanctioned Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, an economist and former Russian politician.
Kerimov made a fortune investing in Russian gold producer Polyus, with Forbes magazine putting his net worth at $16 billion. The U.S. first sanctioned him in 2018 after he’d been detained in France and accused of money laundering there, sometimes arriving with suitcases stuffed with 20 million euros.
The FBI linked the Amadea to the Kerimov family through their alleged use of code names while aboard and the purchase of items like a pizza oven and a spa bed. The ship became a target of Task Force KleptoCapture, launched in March to seize Russian oligarchs’ assets to pressure Russia to end the war.
The 106-meter (348-foot) long vessel, about the length of a football field, features a live lobster tank, a hand-painted piano, a swimming pool and and a large helipad.
Haniff, who represents paper owner Millemarin Investments, argues the owner is another wealthy Russian who doesn't face sanctions, Eduard Khudainatov. He's the former chairman and chief executive of Rosneft, the state-controlled Russian oil and gas company.
The U.S. acknowledges that paperwork appears to show Khudainatov is the owner but say he’s also the paper owner of a second and even larger superyacht, the Scheherazade, which has been linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. question whether Khudainatov could really afford two superyachts worth a total of more than $1 billion.
“The fact that Khudainatov is being held out as the owner of two of the largest superyachts on record, both linked to sanctioned individuals, suggests that Khudainatov is being used as a clean, unsanctioned straw owner to conceal the true beneficial owners,” the FBI wrote in a court affidavit.
The U.S. claims Kerimov secretly bought the Amadea last year through shell companies. The FBI said a search warrant in Fiji turned up emails showing that Kerimov’s children were aboard the ship this year and that the crew used code names — G0 for Kerimov, G1 for his wife, G2 for his daughter and so on.
The FBI said crew members discuss a possible “upcoming G0 guest trip” noting he wants the quickest jet skis available — so they’ll need to buy new jet skis.
In his appeal, Haniff argues the U.S. case is based on hearsay and rumors spread by unnamed crew members, and there’s no evidence that Khudainatov couldn’t afford an investment in two superyachts.
The yacht remains berthed at Lautoka harbor in the heart of Fiji’s sugar cane region.