Ex-Rosneft chief says he owns seized yacht, seeks to block US forfeiture

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A former chief executive of Russian state oil company Rosneft has claimed ownership of a $300 million yacht seized by U.S. authorities last year as part of a crackdown on alleged sanctions violations, U.S. court records showed on Tuesday.

Eduard Khudainatov’s claim that he owns the 348-foot (106-meter) Amadea is a challenge to the U.S. Department of Justice’s push to take permanent ownership of the yacht, which it says is owned by sanctioned Russian billionaire Suleiman Kerimov.

“Mr. Khudainatov has always been the ultimate beneficial owner … and is not sanctioned by the United States government,” Khudainatov’s lawyers said in a filing in Manhattan federal court. “As such, the (Amadea) is not forfeitable, as it neither constitutes nor is derived from any unlawful activity.”

Khudainatov left Rosneft in 2013. The Amadea is being docked in San Diego while its ownership is sorted out.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which brought the forfeiture action, declined to comment.

The FBI said in an affidavit filed in Fiji, which seized the Amadea last May pursuant to a U.S. warrant, that Khudainatov was being used as a straw owner to conceal the yacht’s true owner.

The Amadea’s seizure came as Washington ramped up sanctions enforcement against people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to pressure Moscow to halt its war in Ukraine.

Prosecutors said Kerimov, who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2014 and 2018 over Russian activities in Syria and Ukraine, owns the yacht through a series of shell companies.

Kerimov and his family are worth $10.7 billion, according to Forbes magazine, after he amassed his fortune through Russian gold miner Polyus, though he is no longer a shareholder.

In a forfeiture complaint last month, prosecutors said Kerimov bought the Amadea in 2021, and then committed sanctions violations by funneling more than $1 million in maintenance payments through U.S. financial institutions.

Should the U.S. government gain control of the Amadea, it would likely be auctioned, with sale proceeds going to Ukraine.

U.S. District Judge Dale Ho has scheduled an initial conference for Jan. 10, 2024.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)