Alexey Kuzmichev, a sanctioned Russian businessman, won a court victory this week for one of two yachts he owns. A judge declared that French customs officials unlawfully raided and froze La Petite Ourse, an 86-footer (26.23-meter) Wally, earlier this year.
Kuzmichev, a banking and telecom magnate, came under European Union sanctions stemming from the war in Ukraine in mid-March. Shortly thereafter, France’s customs authority boarded the two yachts in Cannes. (The second yacht, La Petite Ourse II, is a 54-footer/16.5-meter.) Last month, Kuzmichev filed a lawsuit against the customs authority. According to his lawyer, Philippe Blanchetier, officials claimed they were investigating sanctions violations in order to board the yachts. Additionally, Blanchetier says officials didn’t inform the captains they had the right to oppose the search. He also argued that the officials made no mention of violations in the subsequent reports. “Being Russian and rich doesn’t make you necessarily a thug,” Bloomberg News quotes Blanchetier telling the court in September.
Furthermore, Kuzmichev’s lawsuit claimed customs officials improperly exceeded the extent of European Union sanctions. While the sanctions meant assets like La Petite Ourse and La Petite Ourse II were frozen, Blanchetier argued that the agency immobilized them. This, in turn, essentially means the agency stripped Kuzmichev of ownership, whereas sanctioned individuals can indeed continue using assets for personal benefit under a freeze.
Meanwhile, in the same court, a customs official indicated that the agency properly raided the two yachts. In fact, Marie-Anne Josrolland says French law doesn’t require suspicion of sanctions evasion. She says customs officials properly issued formal immobilization of the yachts, too.
This week, the court sided with Kuzmichev. The judge says officials failed to document whether they informed La Petite Ourse’s captain of his rights. Likewise, the judge adds, officials failed to document any possible fraud from sanctions evasion, and that this should have been the very reason for boarding. Therefore, the government agency made “serious errors” and its actions were “irregular.”
Notably, though, Kuzmichev did not win a related lawsuit over the immobilization of La Petite Ourse II. The judge says that case needs refiling in a northern French court, since the customs unit in charge of inspections has its base there. (UPDATE, December 13, 2022: On December 2, a northern French court ordered the customs agency to release the yacht, citing procedural errors made during the seizure.)
Regardless of the court ruling, Kuzmichev cannot take his megayacht out of French waters. Government officials seized Amore Vero earlier this year after discovering the crew was attempting to depart the country.