Imposing sanctions on some of Vladimir Putin’s wealthiest friends is designed to cost them dearly, but in the case of superyacht Amadea, it is the small island nation of Fiji that is forced to pay.
The 106-meter luxury vessel arrived in the port of Lautoka in mid-April and has been the subject of legal action, including being the asset in question on a US seizure warrant.
Last week it appeared US law enforcement on the ground in Fiji was free to go with the $450million superyacht, but a new appeal attempt has been filed and will be heard this week.
The problem for Fiji is that this very expensive vessel is also very expensive to maintain.
At present, the vessel is in the custody of Fijian authorities and, according to the prosecutor, is costing the country more than FJD$1 million ($655,000) a week as legal proceedings drag on.
Fiji’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Christopher Pryde, said the current stay on the seizure of the Amadea should be lifted for a number of reasons, including the cost of “maintaining the yacht” and “the international reputation of Fiji”.
The Amadea affair put Fiji in a unique position – away from war in Ukraine, but firmly wedged between a sanctioned Russian billionaire and the US government.
The central question
One detail in the Amadea case that has been at the center of legal proceedings is the question of who actually owns it.
At the end of the dark trail of shell companies and trusts, who can board the Amadea and call it their own?
And the answer is not who this person is supposed to be, but rather who can prove that they benefit from the ownership of the vessel in court.
The US thinks it has evidence that proves Russian billionaire, politician and Putin ally Sulieman Kerimov owns Amadea, but on paper it is owned by an investment company.
This firm has lawyers in Fiji fighting to stop the US Marshals Service from sailing the Amadea into US territory.
At the heart of the legal issue is the US seizure warrant.
Essentially, the US government asked the Fijian government to help seize the Amadea and so the prosecutor requested that the US seizure warrant be registered locally, meaning it could be executed in Fiji.
This request was granted and, together with the FBI and the US Marshals Service, Fijian law enforcement seized the yacht last week.
But then the defense attorneys appealed.
Their position is that the question of who owns the Amadea must be decided by a Fijian court, before the US warrant can be accepted and the vessel seized.
The Fijian public prosecutor believes that this issue should be decided by a US court.
“The question of ownership and the underlying criminal matters that gave rise to the US request to the Fiji authorities to detain the yacht should be decided in the United States and not in Fiji,” Mr Pryde said.
The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said Fiji was “only facilitating a request from the United States”.
The case will go to the full bench of the Fijian Court of Appeal on Wednesday.
And while those technical details are debated in Suva, the Amadea sits across the main island of Fiji, racking up a sizable public bill.
Mr Pryde was in court for the appeal hearing on Thursday and said the case was costing the Fijian government $82,000 ($119,000) a day, or more than FJD$1 million a week.
“Fiji is responsible for the safekeeping of property in its custody and is therefore responsible for the costs of maintaining the Amadea. Once custody of the yacht is entrusted to the United States, the United States will bear the costs,” said the office of the director of Fiji. the prosecution said in a statement.
The Amadea is currently moored at a private dock in Lautoka behind security barriers guarded by the Port Authority. The vessel has been refueled and in recent photos appears to have been cleared of personal effects.
Local media reported that the Amadea was also blocking traffic at Princess Wharf in Lautoka.
The U.S. government is prepared to assume control of the ship and associated costs and has previously estimated these expenses at $30 million per year.
In cases like this, Washington also has the ability to share any proceeds from the eventual sale of assets gained through confiscation proceedings with international partners.
As Russia invaded Ukraine, the Amadea turned dark and began its journey across the Pacific, according to the FBI.
He sailed from Mexico to Fiji – a forehand that few ships in the world would be able to handle without refueling.
But with the Amadea’s live lobster tank and helipad, comes a massive fuel tank and the ability to cross oceans at high speed.
The FBI said there was an attempt to prevent the seizure of the Amadea “almost immediately” after the war with Russia began.
“Amadea disabled its Automated Information Systems (AIS) on February 24, 2022, almost immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began,” the FBI said.
So why Fiji?
There is speculation about the intended final destination for the Amadea, but none of the mainstream theories holds that the ship will remain in Fiji.
The private dock at Lautoka was probably the best place to refuel and refuel.
The ship’s documents indicated the next destination would be the Philippines, but the FBI believed it was heading for Russia’s Pacific port of Vladivostok.
Fiji has had diplomatic relations with Russia for over 50 years.
And when Fiji’s current rulers came to power in a 2006 coup, Russia was among the nations that did not impose sanctions on the new government.
But despite the Russia-Fiji relationship, any hope the crew had of sailing in friendly waters was quickly dashed.
Since arriving in Fiji, local authorities have worked closely with US law enforcement to take control of the Amadea.
Between Russia and the United States
Part of the attorney general’s argument in court this week was that the Amadea case needed to be finalized quickly because the country’s international reputation was at stake.
Mr Pryde said there was a cost to ‘Fiji’s international reputation by delaying what should have been a simple matter’.
Despite the yacht being linked to Moscow, the registration of a foreign restraining order in Fiji is not unprecedented.
“The legal proceedings surrounding Amadea are not unique and Fiji has already registered foreign restraining orders through its Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Act,” said the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions of Fiji. in a press release.
“Fiji has international obligations under the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.”
Fiji is arguably in an unenviable position.
On one side of this case is a mysterious Cayman Islands-based investment firm potentially backed by one of the world’s richest men.
On the other side is the power of the US government pursuing a warrant issued by a court in Washington DC.
And all of this is taking place as authorities around the world act against billionaires with ties to Moscow.
The US attorney general and White House spokesman were quick to claim victory last week when the Amadea was seized by Fijian authorities on behalf of the United States.
From now on, the fate of the ship is again in the hands of the Fijian justice system; an entity that hears a case that may have significant geopolitical implications, as the whole world watches and the cost to the people of Fiji adds up.
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