MARINA DI CARRARA, Italy— Italian police are in a race to complete the investigation into the ownership of a $700 million superyacht that US officials say is linked to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia before the ship goes to sea is put and can escape possible penalties.
They may run out of time.
After months in a dry dock in the Tuscan port of Marina di Carrara, the 459-meter-long vessel, called the Scheherazade, was put back into the water on Tuesday. Crew members milled over the top as water slowly filled the dry dock. 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 it would likely undergo sea trials first to check equipment – common for a ship under repair and, in this case, in port since September.
The Scheherazade has so far eluded the fate of a few luxury yachts linked to powerful Russians, which have been seized in the attempt by the European Union, Britain and the United States to pursue the wealth of oligarchs and officials in the interior. circle of Mr Putin 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 a sanctions list. Italian media reported that the owner was Eduard Khudainatov, an oil magnate who is currently not under sanctions. He is a longtime associate of Igor Sechin, a close ally of Putin and chairman of the 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 indeed the owner, that is only allowed on paper. His name has also been mentioned in the case of another superyacht, The Associated Press previously reported: the Amadea, which shares an exterior designer, interior designer and builder with the Scheherazade. On Tuesday, Fiji’s highest court authorized the United States to seize the $325 million Amadea, which has been detained in the South Pacific since last month. According to a US official, the owner of the vessel is Suleiman A. Kerimov, a billionaire gold magnate from Russia who has been under US sanctions since 2018; lawyers claim the real owner is Mr. Khudainatov, The Associated Press reported.
The former Scheherazade crew member, who requested to remain anonymous due to a nondisclosure agreement signed by the workers on the ship, had never heard of Mr Khudainatov and said there was open discussion on board that the Scheherazade’s real owner was Mr Putin. Shortly after The Times first reported on 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 was given a list of crew members and found that many of them were employees of the Russian agency monitoring Mr Putin.
A spokeswoman for Italy’s financial police, which has led the national and international investigation into the Scheherazade’s ownership, said that if the ship departed before the investigation was completed, authorities could do nothing to stop it.
Three dock workers said authorities appeared to be monitoring the yacht, which was docked next to a police station and coastguard while in dry dock; a police helicopter flies by daily, they said. The workers, who were not authorized to speak to the press, asked that their names not be released.
A retired shipyard worker, Roberto Franchi, said that if the Scheherazade “floats, it can move relatively quickly”.
It’s not clear where the ship would go, but the movements of Russian superyachts that have successfully evaded US, European or British sanctions open up some possibilities. Two ships belonging to billionaire Roman Abramovich, who is facing British and EU sanctions, have been in Turkish waters for weeks. Others have hung out in the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. The Nord, owned by sanctioned billionaire Alexei Mordashov, went much further afield, arriving at the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok in late March, according to data from Marine Traffic, which tracks ships.
Those superyachts escaped the fate of the Amadea and a growing list of others, including Sailing Yacht A, owned by billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and seized by Italian police in March; and the Crescent, sister ship of the Scheherazade, seized in Spain. Reuters, quoting a person from the Spanish police, reported that the Crescent was believed to belong to Mr Sechin.
Here in Marina di Carrara, dock workers and other people with access to the shipyard saw a flurry of activity by the crew of the Scheherazade: removing the white plastic screens that protected the decks during repairs, cleaning the ship, loading stocks. Last week, they said, fuel trucks filled the ship’s massive tanks as crew members moved carefully packed suitcases aboard.
As the sun set on Tuesday, a young couple had their aperitivo drinks at a bar overlooking the shipyard.
“Look, Putin’s yacht is still there,” joked Massimo Giovi, a 25-year-old student. “If that works, the skyline here will change.”
Julian Barnes reporting contributed.