Spain seizes Russian oligarch Vekselberg's superyacht on behalf of U.S

By Belén Carreño and Sarah N. Lynch

MADRID/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Spanish police on Monday impounded a superyacht belonging to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg on behalf of U.S. authorities, the first time the United States has seized property belonging to a Russian oligarch since its invasion of Ukraine in February.

Valued at more than 90 million euros ($99 million), the 78-metre-long "Tango" (255 ft) was seized in a shipyard on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, the Guardia Civil police and the U.S. Justice Department said in parallel statements.

The Spanish police added that documents and data storage devices were also seized from the ship.

The Justice Department said on Monday that the Tango is subject to forfeiture based on violations of U.S. bank fraud, money laundering, and sanction statutes.

Separately, prosecutors also filed seizure warrants in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia targeting approximately $625,000 held at nine U.S. financial institutions associated with parties under sanctions.

A spokesperson for billionaire Vekselberg, who heads aluminium-to-energy conglomerate Renova, had no immediate comment.

Vekselberg is not on the list of people subject to European Union sanctions against Russia.

But he was placed under U.S. sanctions in 2018 over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and then included on a list of members of the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin targeted in retaliation for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

According to the seizure warrant, Vekselberg is accused of conspiring with others to commit bank fraud by "structuring transactions about the Tango in such a manner as to obfuscate Vekselberg’s ownership interest" in the vessel, thereby tricking U.S. banks into processing transactions.

The warrant also cites prior litigation against Renova's founders, including Vekselberg, dating as far back as 2001, which accused him of involvement in a "widespread racketeering and money laundering scheme."

Monday's action marks the first of many anticipated cases expected by the Justice Department's "KleptoCapture" task force.

Launched last month, its goal is to put the finances of Russian oligarchs under strain in a bid to pressure Putin to cease his war on Ukraine.

The unit's name is a play on the word "kleptocracy," which refers to corrupted officials who misuse power to accumulate wealth. The task force includes prosecutors, investigators and analysts from multiple federal agencies.

"Today marks our task force's first seizure of an asset belonging to a sanctioned individual with close ties to the Russian regime. It will not be the last," U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a video statement.

"Together with our international partners, we will do everything possible to hold accountable any individual whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue its unjust war."

Even if a sanctioned vessel is located outside the United States, making maintenance or insurance payments for the vessel using U.S. dollars could make the vessel subject to U.S. civil or criminal forfeiture, according to Andrew Adams, the head of the task force.

"The forfeiture laws really have some heft in that respect," Adams told Reuters in an interview last week.

Spanish authorities have separately impounded three other superyachts suspected of belonging to Russians under EU sanctions over the past weeks.

($1 = 0.9085 euros)

(Reporting by Belen Carreño Inti Landauro and Aislinn Laing in Madridi; Sarah N. Lynch in Washington, and Luc Cohen and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Andrei Khalip, John Stonestreet and Grant McCool)