WELLINGTON, New Zealand – (AP) – At the port of Lautoka, in the heart of Fiji’s sugar cane region, five US federal agents boarded the Russian-owned Amadea, a luxury superyacht from the length of a football field.

“They want to take 20 crew and sail east!” the ship’s captain wrote in a frantic WhatsApp message on May 5 to lawyer Feizal Haniff, who represents the company that legally owns the superyacht.

“When?” Haniff responded, court documents obtained by the Associated Press show. “Please wait. Please wait. Can you hold on. I need a judge. I’m dialing everyone’s number.

The case highlights the tricky legal terrain the United States finds itself on as it tries to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs around the world. These intentions are welcomed by many governments and citizens who oppose the war in Ukraine, but some actions raise questions about the scope of US jurisdiction.

In Fiji, officers boarded the vessel after an initial court victory in which a lower Fijian court granted registration of a US seizure warrant.

In Washington, the Department of Justice hastened to issue a press release. “A $300 million yacht from sanctioned Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov seized by Fiji at the request of the United States,” it read.

But Haniff maintained that the United States had taken the plunge. Whatever evidence or suspicion the FBI had about the ship, Haniff argued, they had no right to take control of it, let alone scare it away.

That’s because before officers boarded the ship, Haniff had already filed two lawsuits, arguing that the real owner was a different wealthy Russian – a man who didn’t face any sanctions – and that the United States had no jurisdiction under Fiji’s mutual assistance laws. seize the vessel, at least until a court determines who really owned the Amadea.

The Fiji Court of Appeal decided to take up the case and heard arguments on Wednesday. The Amadea is now back under the watchful eye of the Fijian police.

The FBI had linked the Amadea to the Kerimov family through their alleged use of codenames on board and the purchase of items like a pizza oven and a spa bed. The ship became the target of Task Force KleptoCapture, launched in March to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs to pressure Russia to end the war.

Court documents say the Amadea turned off its transponder shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine and sailed from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal to Mexico, arriving with more than $100,000 in cash. He then traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to Fiji.

The Justice Department said it did not believe documents showing the Amadea was then heading to the Philippines, arguing it was really destined for Vladivostok or elsewhere in Russia.

The department said it found a text on a crew member’s phone: “We’re not going to Russia” followed by a “shh” emoji.

Court documents show that the company Haniff represents, Millemarin Investments, is the legal owner of the Cayman Islands-flagged superyacht and that Millemarin is owned by Eduard Khudainatov, former chairman and chief executive of Rosneft, the government-controlled Russian oil and gas company. ‘State. Khudainatov, who faces no sanctions, filed an affidavit to say he owns the Amadea.

When US agents boarded the ship, Haniff feared he would never have the opportunity to plead his case in court, as the Amadea would have sailed to the United States – possibly to American Samoa, Hawaii, even San Francisco.

He prepared a fiery draft appeal accusing US authorities of trampling on Fiji’s sovereignty after meeting a lower court judge who was “hit by the US warrant”. He said they tried to bribe the yacht’s young crew members to sail it to the United States and threatened to revoke the crew’s US visas.

“The conduct of the US authorities in Fiji regarding the Amadea has been appalling,” he wrote in a draft he never filed because the appeals court took up the case.

A Justice Department official, who was not authorized to discuss the case by name and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. officers who boarded the ship l did so under a valid warrant and were accompanied by Fijian authorities throughout.

There were “further procedures after the initial warrant approval,” the official acknowledged, adding that the United States had acted correctly under US and Fijian law.

The official said other allegations such as bribery were categorically false.

“We are looking to enter into contracts with various service providers for the transportation of the vessel,” the official said. “The characterization of these contract negotiations as anything other than that is baseless.”

In court documents, the FBI claims that Kerimov, an economist and former Russian politician, is the true owner of the Amadea, which is 106 meters (348 feet) long and includes a live lobster tank, hand-painted piano hand, a swimming pool and a large helipad.

Kerimov made his fortune investing in Russian gold producer Polyus, with Forbes magazine valuing his net worth at $15.6 billion.

The United States first sanctioned him in 2018 after he was detained in France and accused of money laundering there, sometimes arriving with suitcases stuffed with 20 million euros.

The United States acknowledges that the documents appear to show Khudainatov as the owner, but says he is also the paper owner of a second, even larger superyacht, the Scheherazade, which has been linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States wonders if Khudainatov could really afford two superyachts with a total value of more than a billion dollars.

“The fact that Khudainatov is presented as the owner of two of the largest superyachts ever registered, both linked to sanctioned individuals, suggests that Khudainatov is being used as a clean, unauthorized straw owner to conceal the true beneficial owners,” said the FBI. written in a court affidavit.

The US claims it was Kerimov who secretly purchased the Amadea last year through shell companies. The FBI said a search warrant in Fiji revealed messages on the ship’s computers that pointed to Kerimov. Emails showed that Kerimov’s children were on the ship this year and the crew used codenames – G0 for Kerimov, G1 for his wife, G2 for his daughter, etc.

Ownership of the Kerimov family was evident in the changes they made to the superyacht, such as the addition of electrical outlets in her bathrooms, and their involvement in approving the new pizza oven and spa bed, the FBI said. The crew members discuss a possible “next G0 guest trip” noting that he wants the fastest jet skis available – so they will have to buy new jet skis.

In his appeal, Haniff argues that the US deal is based on rumors spread by anonymous crew members, and that there is no evidence that Khudainatov could not afford to invest in two superyachts.

FBI evidence only shows that Kerimov’s family may have been invited onto the boat, he said.

“It’s a small thing,” Haniff wrote in her appeal. “The super-rich are a tribe who live different lives from others: they are given privileges and luxuries in goods and services that are far removed from ordinary experience. It says nothing to suggest ownership.

In a week or two, the Court of Appeal should decide what happens next to the Amadea.

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Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to it.