Weeks after it was revealed that an oligarch’s yacht was confiscated in Fiji, the US still doesn’t have it
Two days after the Justice Department announced it was helping Fijian police seize a $300 million yacht allegedly belonging to a sanctioned Russian oligarch, the same police ordered American authorities to abandon the ship, according to court documents.
US effort to seize and sell the 348-foot Amadea,said to be owned by gold mining billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, has been hampered by disagreements with the ship’s crew and legal maneuvering by the owner, according to documents filed with a court in Fiji.
These disagreements came to a head on the morning of May 7 when US law enforcement and a maritime contractor they hired boarded the ship at around 9:30 a.m. and ordered the captain to “hand over the Amadea immediately with all key personnel available.” , according to a captain’s affidavit filed May 24 in a court in Fiji.
Captain John Walsh, a British citizen, wrote in the affidavit that he “politely informed US officials and contractors that we could not assist.”
Walsh wrote that the crew’s workload had been reduced to “just watch and emergency duties” because the shipowner’s assets – needed to pay the crew – had been frozen. He added that crew members feared that working with the US in violation of their contracts with the shipowner would damage their reputation in the yachting industry.
“In short, the current crew of the Amadea refuse to sail with US authorities on the Amadea to an undisclosed destination,” Walsh wrote.
US authorities say the holding company that owns Amadea is a front for Kerimov. The company’s Fiji lawyer, Feizal Haniff, says the real owner is actually an unsanctioned Russian oil executive named Eduard Khudainatov.
The Amadea is one of at least two giant superyachts – worth a combined value of about $1 billion – owned by holding companies linked to Khudainatov. But American officials dismiss Khudainatov’s claims. An FBI agent claimed in a search warrant that Khudainatov was “at best, a second-tier oligarch with nowhere near the resources to buy and maintain more than $1 billion worth of luxury yachts.”
The FBI agent called Khudainatov a “straw man” for the sanctioned Russian elite who really own the yachts. He wrote that the Amadea crew “identified Kerimov as the true owner of the Amadea and others described how Kerimov’s family used the yacht on several occasions” in interviews with the Fijian Police and FBI. He described e-mails found on the ship’s computers that allegedly referred to the Kerimovs in encrypted form – “G-0” for Kerimov, “G-1” for his wife, “G-2” for his daughter and “G-3” for his son, and said the Kerimovs had requested long-term changes to the ship, such as B. a new pizza oven, a new spa bed and by Kerimov himself “the fastest (jet skis) on the market”.
When the FBI boarded the Amadea on May 7, they appeared to be in a hurry, Walsh wrote.
“U.S. authorities and contractors were rushed and time-sensitive and wanted an immediate handover…so they can leave Fiji on the Amadea without delay,” Walsh wrote.
This haste was justified. Just 50 minutes after US officials boarded the ship, a Superintendent of the Fiji Police Department boarded the ship and ordered US officials to abandon ship. He informed them that the day before, May 6, the Fiji court had ordered the stay of a judgment handed down three days earlier authorizing the US warrant to seize the ship. The Americans had no more time to sail away.
The Justice Department declined to comment on this story.
In the days after the May 7 incident, Walsh — who isrotating at the helm of the Amadea — noticed other signs that the US was preparing for a speedy takeover of the ship if it finally got the go-ahead.
Would-be crew, apparently hired by a contractor for the US, showed up at times asking for lodging or help on the ship. Walsh declined each time, he wrote, for failing to verify them.
A May 6 job advertisement for a vessel that appears to fit the description of the Amadea was posted on the yachting industry website yotspot.com. The posting was looking for people to fill 19 positions – from chief officer to chef – “needed ASAP”.
The president of the contractor who helped seize the ship, National Maritime Services, said he was not authorized to speak to the media. Government records show that the company is owed more than $6 million for its work this year.
President Biden-backed legislation, passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate, would allow the US to sell the luxurious ship and use the proceeds to fund the war and Ukraine’s reconstruction efforts.
According to Haniff, the newly hired crew now appear to be in place and ready, and court records show a pilot boat has been booked on behalf of the Amadea and is on standby. But the US still cannot budge.
On Friday, a court ruled against the owners of the Amadea but gave Haniff a week to appeal again to Fiji’s Supreme Court, meaning the Justice Department will again have to wait before finally impounding the vessel. It is unclear how long the proceedings before this court will last.
Meanwhile, US officials in Fiji have continued to board the ship regularly. They accompanied the Fijian police on Monday to serve arrest warrants for ships’ computers and, according to Haniff, were even on board immediately after Friday’s decision.
Robert Legare provided coverage for this story.