By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) -A billionaire ally of Russian businessman Roman Abramovich lost his attempt at London’s High Court on Friday to overturn British sanctions imposed on him after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Oil tycoon Eugene Shvidler, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine at $1.6 billion, was sanctioned in March 2022 on the grounds of his association with former Chelsea Football Club owner Abramovich. His two private jets were also seized.
The case is the first substantive challenge to British sanctions imposed following the February 2022 invasion, as Western governments target people and businesses over their alleged connections to the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The measures have prompted legal challenges from those who say they have been unfairly targeted.
Britain alone has sanctioned about 1,600 people – including Abramovich, who is separately challenging sanctions imposed by the EU – following the invasion of Ukraine and frozen more than 18 billion pounds ($23 billion) in assets.
After the High Court’s ruling to reject Shvidler’s challenge, his lawyer Michael O’Kane said the oil tycoon – a dual British-U.S. citizen – would seek to appeal Friday’s judgment “at the earliest opportunity”.
“He has never been a citizen of Russia, has not visited Russia for more than 15 years and has been critical of the Russian government’s actions in Ukraine,” O’Kane said in a statement.
“He remains at a loss to know what else he can do to be de-listed, given the absence of UK government engagement, policy or guidance. If this judgment stands, it will make it virtually impossible for any person sanctioned by the Foreign Secretary to bring a successful court challenge.”
Britain’s Foreign Office said it had “won comprehensively” against Shvidler’s challenge. “We welcome this judgement and the message it sends about the strength of the UK sanctions regime,” a spokesperson said.
After being sanctioned, his private aircraft were publicly grounded by Britain’s then-transport minister as part of the government’s demonstration that it was taking tough action against Russian oligarchs and those linked to them, an act his lawyers said had made him a “poster boy for Russian sanctions”.
Shvidler had argued Britain was wrong to impose sanctions just because of his relationship with Abramovich, whom he described as a close friend.
Britain had also cited Shvidler’s position as a director of London-listed Russian steel producer Evraz and role at Russian oil company Sibneft, sold by Abramovich in 2005, as evidence he obtained a financial benefit from Abramovich.
The businessman’s legal team told the High Court at a hearing in July that Shvidler did not receive any financial benefits from Abramovich, and any payment he received from Evraz or Sibneft was from those companies and not Abramovich.
The court was told that Shvidler had no relationship with Putin, no involvement in Russian politics and had not even been to Russia since attending the funeral of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 2007.
The sanctions had destroyed his ability to deal with his assets and conduct his business, while they had disrupted his private life and shattered his reputation, his lawyers said.
While he had called for peace after the Ukraine invasion, in a witness statement to the court Shvidler said the British foreign ministry had wanted him to make further comments condemning the war which he said could place his family “in great personal jeopardy”.
“In my view, whilst the effects of designation are serious, and the claimant and his family have been subjected to enormous inconvenience and no little financial loss, they do not threaten his life or liberty,” the judge Neil Garnham said in his ruling.
“The effects of designation are temporary and reversible, not fixed and permanent. The claimant is not permanently deprived of his property; he is simply deprived of the use of that property for the period it is thought necessary to maintain the sanctions.”
(Reporting by Michael Holden; additional reporting by Sachin Ravikumar; Editing by Kate Holton, Gareth Jones and Conor Humphries)