SYDNEY: A Fiji court has ruled a Russian-owned superyacht be removed from the Pacific island nation by the United States because it was a waste of money for Fiji to maintain the vessel amid legal wrangling over its seizure.
The US Justice Department's Taskforce KleptoCapture has focused on seizing yachts and other luxury assets of Russian oligarchs in a bid to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine.
The 106m Amadea arrived in Fiji on Apr 13, after an 18-day voyage from Mexico. It was seized by Fiji authorities after the country's High Court granted a US warrant last month that linked the yacht to sanctioned Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov.
The FBI has said the US$300 million luxury vessel had running costs of US$25 million to US$30 million per year, and the United States would pay to maintain the vessel after it was seized.
However, the Fiji government has been footing the bill while an appeal by the vessel's registered owner, Millemarin Investments, worked its way through Fiji's courts.
The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday (Jun 7) that public interest demands the yacht "sail out of Fiji waters" because having it berthed in Fiji was "costing the Fijian Government dearly", according to the judgment.
The vessel "sailed into Fiji waters without any permit and most probably to evade prosecution by the United States", it added.
The United States alleges Kerimov beneficially owns the Amadea, although lawyers for the vessel have denied this and told the court it was owned by another Russian oligarch, Eduard Khudainatov, the former chief of Russian energy giant Rosneft, who has not been sanctioned.
Last month, another luxury yacht reportedly owned by Khudainatov worth some US$700 million was impounded by police in Italy.
The FBI said in the seizure warrant that Amadea had tried to avoid being seized "almost immediately" after Russian troops entered Ukraine, turning off its automated tracking system on Feb 24.
The vessel's lawyer, Feizal Haniff, declined to comment on the judgement.
"The decision acknowledges Fiji's commitment to respecting international mutual assistance requests and Fiji's international obligations," said Fiji's Director of Public Prosecutions, Christopher Pryde in a statement.
He said the court agreed that "issues concerning money laundering and ownership" need to be decided in the originating US court.
"The Amadea has been handed over to US authorities and will now leave Fiji," he added.
The US embassy in Suva did not immediately respond to a request for comment.