NEW YORK, April 1 (Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors have found evidence that Russian oligarchs are trying to evade sanctions put in place to pressure Moscow into stopping its invasion of Ukraine, the government said on Friday. head of a new Justice Department task force.

Andrew Adams, a veteran prosecutor responsible for leading the “KleptoCapture” task force established last month, told Reuters in an interview that in some cases even oligarchs who have yet to face sanctions are trying to move assets before possible future sanctions. .

But even as they try to hide yachts, planes or other movable assets in countries they believe to be secret, Adams warned that oligarchs trying to evade sanctions face a level of cooperation. “unprecedented” international community to track ill-gotten gains. Russian elites.

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“There are ongoing efforts – some of which have been made public – to move, for example, moveable property in the form of yachts, airplanes … into jurisdictions where I think people feel that it would be harder to investigate and harder to freeze,” Adams said.

The task force’s goal is to put a strain on the finances of the Russian oligarchs in a bid to pressure President Vladimir Putin to end his weeks-long assault on Ukraine. Read more

The unit’s name is a play on the word “kleptocracy”, which refers to corrupt officials who abuse power to accumulate wealth. The task force includes prosecutors, investigators and analysts from several federal agencies.

The United States and its allies have imposed several rounds of sanctions targeting Putin, many of his wealthy friends, and dozens of Russian companies and government agencies.

‘SENSE OF SHARED PURPOSE’

It is often difficult to trace the assets of oligarchs because they are hidden behind “layers of shell companies scattered around the world,” Adams said.

US prosecutors are receiving information from places previously considered safe havens, Adams said.

“Especially in the current context and the current climate…the level of shared sense of purpose is, I think, at an all-time high,” Adams said.

He declined to provide details of the specific jurisdictions that provided information to the task force, or to name specific people under investigation.

He said targeting assets located overseas was a major part of the unit’s work, adding that the United States had not been an attractive country for supporters of Putin’s government since around 2014 due to series of sanctions over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea to Ukraine.

European countries have already found and detained the yachts of wealthy Russian businessmen.

The Spanish government has temporarily seized the $140 million Superyacht Valerie, which has been linked to Sergei Chemezov, a former KGB officer who heads state conglomerate Rostec.

Last month, France arrested a ship belonging to Rosneft boss Igor Sechin, while Italy seized a yacht belonging to Russian billionaire Andrew Igorevich Melnichenko.

The Justice Department said last month that information provided by U.S. law enforcement to foreign partners has contributed to several vessel seizures.

“The United States has not been a friendly place to park your money as an oligarch,” Adams said. “The most ostentatious, obvious types of assets are not found in the United States.”

Adams cited a 2019 case in which US authorities seized the Wise Honest, a North Korean freighter accused of making illicit coal shipments in violation of US sanctions, even though the vessel was originally located outside waters. US, as a “playbook” for some of the task force’s future cases.

LONG LEGAL FIGHTS AHEAD

Adams said criminal charges and asset seizure warrants could come in the ‘early days’ of the unit, which was also braced for lengthy legal battles by oligarchs seeking to stop the US from permanently confiscating their assets through civil forfeiture.

These cases can allow the department to take ill-gotten gains in cases where people are outside the country and cannot be extradited. Criminal forfeitures, on the other hand, can accompany an indictment against the owner.

“We should expect extremely well-heeled litigants to take things to court. We will be engaged in litigation that will take some time,” Adams said.

The task force can also target banks, cryptocurrency exchanges, or other financial institutions that help sanction violators by turning a blind eye to suspicious transactions.

Adams said many institutions voluntarily provided information. “Private sector cooperation has already been frequent.”

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Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool

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