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U.S. says Fiji seized Russian billionaire’s $300 million superyacht

The Justice Department says the 348-foot luxury vessel belongs to sanctioned oligarch Suleiman Kerimov.
Image: Amadea
The Amadea, berthed at the Queens Wharf in Lautoka, Fiji. Leon Lord / AFP - Getty Images

A $300 million yacht allegedly owned by sanctioned Russian billionaire Suleiman Kerimov has been seized by Fijian authorities at the request of the U.S., the Justice Department announced Thursday.

The 348-foot luxury vessel, known as the Amadea, was seized after the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that it was subject to forfeiture based on probable cause of sanctions violations.

The U.S. government had said in court papers that "Kerimov and those acting on his behalf and for his benefit caused U.S. dollar transactions for the AMADEA to be sent through U.S. financial institutions, after a time which Kerimov was designated by the Treasury Department."

Attorney General Merrick Garland said the ruling should make clear that "there is no hiding place for the assets of individuals who violate U.S. laws, and there is no hiding place for the assets of criminals who enable the Russian regime."

“The Justice Department will be relentless in our efforts to hold accountable those who facilitate the death and destruction we are witnessing in Ukraine," Garland added.

A lawyer for Kerimov in France did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Lawyers for the company listed as owning the yacht have denied that Kerimov has any connection to it.

The move came as Western nations have ramped up efforts to seize and freeze assets around the world owned by sanctioned Russian elites with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

A billionaire who has been called the “Russian Gatsby,” Kerimov is one of the richest people in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Much of his wealth is thought to stem from his family’s stake in Polyus — the largest gold producer in Russia. 

In 2018, Kerimov was sanctioned by the U.S., along with seven other Russian oligarchs, for benefitting from the Putin regime and Russia’s “malign activity around the globe,” including the occupation of Crimea and efforts to subvert Western democracies. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kerimov was hit with additional sanctions by Canada, the U.K. and the E.U. 

The Amadea arrived in Fiji last month. The vessel was “restrained from leaving Fijian waters” until a warrant to seize the yacht was finalized by U.S. authorities, Fiji’s public prosecutor, Christopher Pryde, said in a statement at the time. 

NBC News last month published an investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media partners, into how Kerimov and his associates used a maze of corporate structures to move more than $700 million in wire transfers from 2012 to 2014. 

The investigation reviewed major financial record leaks — including the Pandora Papers and the FinCEN Files — to identify the wire transfers and connect the companies behind them to Kerimov and his associates. While rich people around the world use creative tactics to protect their wealth, the documents revealed the exceptional steps the billionaire and his associates have taken in the past and highlight the challenges ahead for authorities seeking to stem the flow of money to Putin’s inner circle. 

On April 6, reports emerged that the European Union was considering adding Kerimov’s son Said to its sanctions list, and within hours Polyus announced that the younger Kerimov had resigned from its board of directors and sold off nearly half of his shares in the company, distancing the company in the event that Said was sanctioned. 

Days later the E.U. sanctioned Said for being “associated with a leading businessperson” who provides “a substantial source of revenue to the Government of the Russian Federation,” according to the sanctions announcement. The U.K. followed suit the next week. 

Kerimov’s assets have included a $190 million estate in the French Riviera, according to French prosecutors.

Despite holding diplomatic immunity, Kerimov was arrested in France in 2017 in connection with a tax evasion and money laundering case over the purchase of the property.

French authorities accused Kerimov of purchasing the multimillion-dollar villa and three others through a front man. Charges against Kerimov were later dropped, but the company used to purchase the property paid out approximately $12 million in back taxes and fines. 

Lawyers for Kerimov have denied that he owned the property.

"After several years of investigation, no incrimination has been brought against our client," one of his lawyers told NBC News.

But an official from the prosecutor’s office in Nice said the investigation has not been closed. 

The companies used to purchase the four villas in the south of France were transferred to Kerimov’s eldest daughter from May to November of last year, according to French company register records.

Kerimov’s son and daughter did not respond to requests for comment at the time.