Contrary to recent reports (here, here), Russian oligarchs’ yachts harbored in the Maldives are by no means safe from confiscation. As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), the Maldives has made bribery, embezzlement, and money laundering crimes under its domestic law (here). Pursuant to article 46, it pledges “to afford [other UNCAC parties] the widest measure of legal assistance in investigations, prosecutions and judicial proceedings” to enforce their laws against bribery, embezzlement, and money laundering.
These provisions put the oligarchs’ yachts at risk of confiscation in two ways.
One, Maldivian authorities could initiate an action under the domestic antimoney laundering law. Given the evidence on the public record, there is certainly reason (what American law terms “probable cause”) to believe that the yachts were acquired with the proceeds of a crime, likely embezzlement from the Russian state. (Remember, there need not be a conviction for embezzlement in Russia or elsewhere to launch the related prosecution for money laundering.) The yachts’ presence in the Maldives appears to be more than sufficient grounds for its courts to assert jurisdiction under article 13 of the penal code and therefore to issue a “freeze” order which would prevent the yachts from pulling anchor until a final decision on a seizure action issued.
Alternatively, Maldivian courts have the power under UNCAC and domestic law to issue a freeze order at the request of another UNCAC party. A country where one was built, for example, could open a case to see whether the shipbuilder was paid with the proceeds of a crime, a money laundering offense, and request that the Maldives prevent the yacht from leaving until its case were concluded.
Some say will say that whatever the law, the Maldives is a small island nation without the guts to stand up to Russia. Not so. During the UN General Assembly debate on the resolution denouncing Russian aggression, the government not only backed the resolution but its ambassador left no doubts where its stood: “The Maldives has always taken a principled stand on violations of the territorial integrity of a sovereign country, [a] position based on a bedrock belief in the equality of all States and unconditional respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter.”
Others will be claim that confiscating the oligarchs’ yachts is not possible legally for ownership is obscured by layer upon layer of shell of corporations headquartered in countries. But those layers can be stripped away by the determined efforts of police and prosecutors, a determination surely stiffened by magnitudes given the yacht owners’ complicity in the appalling events daily unfolding in Ukraine.
Perhaps this is my cynicism talking, but I still have a lingering concern that, without the support from other UN member countries, the Maldivian ambassador’s assurances regarding the country’s anticorruption stance could turn out to be “all talk” with no follow through. Considering, as you mention, that the Maldives is a small island nation with much less financial leverage than Russia, it is still strongly possible that it lacks the “guts” to stand up to Russian corruption alone. I therefore find the second alternative, wherein the Maldives freezes Russian yachts through the help of UN member countries, to not only be more promising, but in fact to be necessary. This fight is not one that should rest solely on the Maldives’ shoulders.
Also the “guts” to act come from integrity situation in that country.
I appreciate your skepticism. Leaders often promise action a range of fronts but never follow up. It’s the job of the citizens of their country — and in cases like the Ukraine invasion of citizens of every nation and civil society organizations everywhere — to hold them to their word. Why not a pressure campaign directed at the Maldives and other supposed havens for oligarchs’ yachts and other properties?