Two days after the Department of Justice announced it assisted Fijian police in seizing a $300 million yacht allegedly owned by a sanctioned Russian oligarch, those same police ordered American authorities to leave the ship, according to court documents.
U.S. efforts to seize and sell the 348-foot Amadea,purportedly owned by gold mining billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, have been hampered by disagreements with the ship's crew and legal maneuvering by its owner, according to the documents filed in a Fiji court.
Those disagreements came to a head on the morning of May 7, when U.S. law enforcement and a maritime contractor it hired boarded the ship around 9:30 a.m. and demanded the captain "immediately handover the Amadea with all available key personnel," according to a sworn affidavit from the captain, filed in Fiji court on May 24.
Captain John Walsh, a British national, wrote in the affidavit that he, "politely informed U.S. officials and contractors we were unable to assist."
Walsh wrote that the crew's workload had been reduced to "watchkeeping and emergency responsibilities only" because the ship owner's assets — needed to pay the crew — had been frozen. He added that crewmembers feared cooperating with the U.S., in breach of their contracts with the ship's owner, would damage their reputations in the yachting industry.
"In short, the current crew of the Amadea are refusing to sail on the Amadea with the U.S. authorities to an unknown destination," Walsh wrote.
U.S. authorities say the holding company that owns the Amadea is a front for Kerimov. The company's attorney in Fiji, Feizal Haniff, says the true owner is actually a non-sanctioned Russian oil executive named Eduard Khudainatov.
The Amadea is one of at least two massive superyachts — with a combined value of about $1 billion — owned by holding companies tied to Khudainatov. But American officials are dismissive of Khudainatov's claims. An FBI agent claimed in a warrant that Khudainatov is "a second-tier oligarch (at best) who would not have anywhere near the resources to purchase 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 seeing Kerimov's family using the yacht on multiple occasions," in interviews with Fijian police and the FBI. He described emails found on ship computers that allegedly referred to the Kerimovs in code — "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 a new pizza oven, a new spa bed, and, from Kerimov himself, "the quickest (jet skis) available."
When the FBI boarded the Amadea on May 7, they seemed to be in a hurry, Walsh wrote.
"U.S. authorities and contractors were rushing and conscious of time and wanting immediate handover....in order for them to depart Fiji on the Amadea without delay," Walsh wrote.
That haste was justified. Just 50 minutes after U.S. officials boarded the ship, a Fiji police superintendent came aboard and ordered U.S. officials to leave. He informed them that the day before, on May 6, the Fiji court had ordered a stay of a ruling made three days earlier, approving the U.S. warrant to seize the ship. The Americans had run out of time to sail away.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on this story.
In the days after the May 7 incident, Walsh — who iswho rotate at the helm of the Amadea — noted other signs that the U.S. was preparing for a swift takeover of the ship if finally given permission.
Would-be crew, apparently hired by a contractor for the U.S., showed up intermittently, asking for accommodations or to help out around the ship. Walsh declined each time, he wrote, because he hadn't vetted them.
A May 6 job listing for a ship that appears to match the description of the Amadea was posted on the yachting industry site yotspot.com. The posting sought people to fill 19 positions — ranging from chief officer to cook — "needed asap."
The president of the contractor company helping to seize the vessel, National Maritime Services, said he was not authorized to speak to the media. Government records show the company is owed more than $6 million for its work this year.
Legislation supported by President Biden that has passed the House of Representatives, but not the Senate, would allow the U.S. to sell the luxurious ship and direct the proceeds toward the Ukraine war and recovery effort.
The newly hired crew now appears to be in place and ready, according to Haniff, and court records show a pilot boat has been booked in the Amadea's name and is on standby. But the U.S. still can't make its move.
On Friday, a court ruled against the Amadea's owners, but gave Haniff a week to appeal once more to Fiji's Supreme Court, meaning the Department of Justice will once again have to wait before it can finally seize the ship. It is unclear how long the proceedings before that court will take to conclude.
In the meantime, U.S. officials in Fiji have continued to board the ship regularly. They accompanied Fijian police in serving warrants for ship computers as recently as Monday, and were even on board right after Friday's ruling, according to Haniff.
Robert Legare contributed reporting for this story.
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