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MARINA DI CARRARA, Italy – Italian police are in a race to complete the investigation into the ownership of a $700 million superyacht, which US officials say is linked to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, before the vessel is put to sea and able to escape possible sanctions.
They may be running out of time.
After spending months in dry dock in the Tuscan port of Marina di Carrara, the 459ft vessel, called Scheherazade, was relaunched on Tuesday. Crew members busied themselves on top as water slowly filled the drydock. The British captain, who had previously spoken to reporters, did not respond to questions.
A former crew member said the ship could be ready to sail immediately, but was first likely to undergo sea trials to check its equipment – common for a ship under repair and, in this case, in port since September.
The Scheherazade has so far avoided the fate of some luxury yachts linked to powerful Russians, which have been seized in the effort by the European Union, Britain and the United States to tackle the wealth of oligarchs and officials from Mr. Putin’s inner circle in response to the invasion of Ukraine. In March, the Scheherazade’s captain, Guy Bennett-Pearce, said the ship’s owner – whom he did not identify – was not on any sanctions list. Italian media reported that the owner was Eduard Khudainatov, an oil tycoon who is currently not under sanctions. He is a longtime associate of Igor Sechin, a close Putin ally and chairman of Russian state oil company Rosneft, which is believed to be the owner of a superyacht seized in March.
Mr. Khudainatov’s ownership of the Scheherazade could not be independently verified. If he is the owner, it may only be on paper. Her name also appeared in the case of another superyacht, The Associated Press previously reported: Amedee, which shares an exterior architect, interior designer, and builder with Scheherazade. On Tuesday, Fiji’s highest court allowed the United States to seize the $325 million Amadea, which has been held in the South Pacific nation since last month. According to a US official, the ship’s owner is Suleiman A. Kerimov, a billionaire gold tycoon from Russia who has been under US punishments since 2018; Defense attorneys claim the real owner is Mr Khudainatov, the Associated Press reported.
The former Scheherazade crew member, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to a non-disclosure agreement signed by the ship’s workers, had never heard of Mr Khudainatov and said that it had been openly discussed on board that the real owner of the Scheherazade was Mr Putin. Shortly after The Times first wrote about the Scheherazade in early March, US officials said the yacht had links to Mr Putin, without giving details. A team of journalists working for imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has obtained a list of crew members and found that many of them were employees of the Russian agency that protects Mr. Putin.
A spokeswoman for Italy’s financial police, who led the national and international investigation into the Scheherazade’s ownership, said if the ship leaves before the investigation is complete, there is nothing the authorities can do to stop it .
Three port workers said authorities appeared to be keeping tabs on the yacht, which was adjacent to a police and coastguard station while in drydock; a police helicopter conducts daily overflights, they said. The workers, who were not authorized to speak to the press, asked that their names be withheld.
A retired shipyard employee, Roberto Franchi, said that while the Scheherazade “floats, it can move relatively quickly”.
It’s unclear exactly where the ship would go, but the movements of Russian-owned superyachts that have managed to dodge US, EU or UK sanctions offer some possibilities. Two ships belonging to billionaire Roman Abramovich, who faces British and European sanctions, have been in Turkish waters for weeks. Others have wandered the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. The North, owned by sanctioned billionaire Alexei Mordashov, went much further, arriving at Russia’s peaceful port of Vladivostok in late March, according to to data from Marine Traffic, which tracks vessels.
These superyachts have escaped the fate of Amadea and a growing list of others, including Sailing Yacht A, owned by billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and impounded by the Italian police in March; and the Crescent, sister ship of the Scheherazade, seized in Spain. Reuters, citing a member of the Spanish police reported that the Crescent belonged to Mr. Sechin.
Here in Marina di Carrara, port workers and others with access to the shipyard saw a flurry of activity from the crew of the Scheherazade: removing the white plastic screens that protected the decks during repairs, clean ship, load supplies. Last week, they said, tankers filled the ship’s huge tanks, while crew members carefully moved packed crates aboard.
As the sun went down on Tuesday, a young couple enjoyed an aperitif at a bar overlooking the shipyard.
“Look, Putin’s yacht is still there,” joked Massimo Giovi, a 25-year-old student. “If this continues, it will change the horizon here.”
Julian Barnes contributed report.