U.K. Crime Agency Asks Court to Permanently Seize Russian Oligarch’s Money

Published: 04 July 2024

Westminster Magistrates Court - CrestWestminster Magistrates’ Court in London, U.K. (Photo: GrimsbyT, Wikimedia, License)


Britain’s National Crime Agency has for the first time asked a court to permanently seize funds held by a Russian oligarch, arguing that they are “proceeds of crime,” because he allegedly moved the money in violation of sanctions regulations.

The agency, known as the NCA, applied on May 1 for a forfeiture order for 1.1 million British pounds (US$1.4 million) from Petr Aven, a billionaire who the U.K. says has “been involved in supporting the Government of Russia” during its war in Ukraine.

The money has been frozen since the U.K. sanctioned Aven in 2022. The NCA believes it has now gathered enough evidence to prove the funds are derived from criminality –– in this case, allegedly shifting money to evade sanctions.

“Legislation does not allow for the forfeiture of sanctioned assets simply because the individual is sanctioned,” said Stuart Hadley, an NCA spokesperson. “Seizure of assets would only be practical where criminal activity can be linked to those assets.”

The application to the Westminster Magistrates’ Court is precedent-setting, according to Helen Taylor, a senior legal researcher at the advocacy group Spotlight on Corruption.

“The NCA’s bid to move from temporarily freezing to permanently seizing these assets is the first attempt by U.K. authorities to chase down cash suspected to have been moved in violation of Russia sanctions,” she told OCCRP.

Through his lawyer Aven declined to answer questions about the NCA’s forfeiture application.

“We are instructed that our client does not consider it appropriate to comment on the matters you raise while they remain the subject of on-going legal proceedings,” his lawyer, Thomas Cattee, said by email.

In addition to the U.K., Aven has been sanctioned by the U.S. and the European Union, which says he has “close links” to Russian President Vladimir Putin “dating back to the early 1990s.”

Aven won a partial legal victory in Europe in April when the EU Court of Justice ruled that there was not enough evidence to keep him on the sanctions list. However, sanctions remain in place for now, and Latvia –– where Aven also holds citizenship –– has appealed that ruling.

The U.K. announced its sanctions on Aven back in March 2022, weeks after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, noting that the decision had been made by “building our own grounds rather than relying on those provided by the EU.”

The NCA then began investigating his business and real estate interests in the U.K. and zeroed in on Stephen Gater, who it says “acts as Aven’s representative.” Legal documents show that the agency questioned whether Aven’s wife, Ekaterina Kozina, was also holding money for him.

In May 2022, a judge approved the NCA’s request to freeze 1.5 million pounds. The agency suspected the money belonged to Aven but was being held by Gater, and in companies linked to the two of them, as well as with Kozina.

After two years of investigation, the NCA has now petitioned the court to seize most of that money. Legal documents show the agency suspects transactions and payments made by Gator and Kozina were in breach of U.K. sanctions regulations or intended to circumvent them.

Hickman & Rose, the law firm listed in legal documents as representing Gater, declined to comment when contacted by phone and email.

If the NCA is successful in convincing the court to permanently seize Aven’s money, the victory will be more symbolic than substantive, considering the extent of his wealth. But the ruling would be important nonetheless, according to Taylor of Spotlight on Corruption.

“Even though this 1.1 million pounds is small change for a billionaire oligarch, the NCA’s persistence in pursuing these funds sends an important signal that sanctions will not be dodged with impunity,” she said.