A Fiji court ruled on Tuesday that the United States can seize a Russian-owned superyacht, 21 days after it arrived and was impounded by police, as the United States and its allies press Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
U.S. authorities assert that the luxury vessel, the Amadea, is ultimately owned by Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, who has been sanctioned by the United States and the European Union.
The U.S. Justice Department's Taskforce KleptoCapture has focused on seizing yachts and other luxury assets to put the finances of Russian oligarchs under strain in a bid to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine.
Fiji's High Court granted the order to seize the Amadea, Fiji's Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said in a statement.
The order was made after the DPP applied to register a U.S. warrant to seize the yacht, it said.
The vessel's lawyers, the Haniff Tuitoga law firm, did not respond to a Reuters request for comment but media reported that lawyers for the Amadea said they would seek an interim stay to stop the vessel being towed away.
The Amadea arrived in Fiji last month after an 18-day voyage across the Pacific from Mexico.
It was detained by Fiji police and its captain questioned on why it had arrived in Fiji waters without customs clearance.
Fiji's High Court last month granted a restraining order stopping the Amadea from leaving Fiji until the court had considered the U.S. seizure warrant.
Fiji authorities said they are acting on the U.S. request under Fiji's Mutual Assistance Criminal Matters Act.
Lawyers for the 350-foot motor yacht's registered owner, Millemarin Investments, have denied it is ultimately owned by Kerimov.
They told the court it was owned by another Russian oligarch, Eduard Khudainatov, the former president of oil giant Rosneft, who has not been sanctioned, media reported.
Fiji authorities had argued that the court did not need to determine ownership of the vessel, only that it was subject to a U.S. warrant in a money-laundering case.
The United States sanctioned Kerimov, a former Russian politician who made his fortune in gold, in 2018 and 2014 in response to Russia's actions in Syria and Ukraine.
The U.S. embassy in Suva did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the court ruling.
In a separate Taskforce KleptoCapture case linked to the Pacific, the 255-foot superyacht Tango, alleged to belong to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, was impounded by Spanish police on behalf of U.S. authorities in April.
Tango is flagged in the Pacific island nation of the Cook Islands, which said it assisted in the investigation.
A spokesman for the Cook Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration told Reuters the Cook Islands provided information that allowed investigators to connect the ship with its owner.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Lucy Craymer in Wellington; Editing by Robert Birsel)