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Image: Stuff / FIS

How a fishing boat in Lyttelton was stolen on the other side of the world

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Thursday, June 08, 2023, 07:20 (GMT + 9)

A fishing trawler in New Zealand is at the centre of an international embezzlement scandal involving Ukraine, Russia and Cyprus.

The Aleksey Slobodchikov is a 4400-ton freezer trawler with 80 sailors catching jack mackerel, southern blue whiting and hoki.

The Aleksey Slobodchikov was found moored at Lyttelton Port on May 31. Source: Stuff

Built in the then-Soviet Union, it’s been in Ukrainian and – most recently – Cypriot ownership.

Seen by Stuff at a Lyttelton Port last week – the vessel has a colourful background.

Ownership of the Aleksey Slobodchikov was allegedly stolen from the Ukrainian state fishery weeks after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 – despite the boat physically being in New Zealand waters.

The Ukrainian ambassador, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, told Stuff his country was trying to get the vessel back.

“We are working with the NZ government on the issue. There are some legal procedures that we must adhere to in this process,” he said.

A spokesperson for the operator, the Japanese corporation Maruha Nichiro, confirmed they were now “talking with the government” about the vessel too.

The vessel has been able to fish in Kiwi waters since 2006, when Maruha Nichiro received permission through the Overseas Investment Office.

However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and Maritime NZ all said there was no issue with the ship and they weren’t dealing with the Ukrainian government.

“MFAT has not received a request for assistance on this matter and is not aware of any litigation related to the control of the Aleksey Slobodchikov vessel,” a spokesperson said.

“We do not hold any noteworthy information on the ownership of the vessel.”

The Aleksey Slobodchikov was allegedly stolen in complex circumstances which also included the embezzlement of the money paid for chartering of the ship.

The Aleksey Slobodchikov, photographed in 2016, at its home port in Nelson. Source: Stuff

The vessel is named after a WW2 soldier from the Soviet Union who received the USSR’s highest military honour, the Hero of the Soviet Union medal.

It was launched in 1991 in Ukraine, with a lifespan of between 30 and 40 years and is one of a group of four similar Ukrainian vessels fishing in NZ.

The Ukrainian fishery operated the boat for a decade, but in 2000 shifted to using a middle organisation to charter the vessel out.

<--Source: Google / FIS

The ship was effectively chartered out twice, but the ship stayed on their balance sheet.

After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Ukraine lost authority over the ship as Vladimir Putin annexed the Aleksey Slobodchikov’s home port of Sevastopol.

One of the state fishery’s senior workers, who lived in Sevastopol, then chartered the vessel for so long it would be unusable by the time the contract ended in 2025.

Ukraine alleges that charter fee was paid into a Russian bank account set up by the worker in the name of its state fishery, in an embezzlement scheme.

In 2014, the Aleksey Slobodchikov was also registered on the Russian ship registry, rather than the Ukrainian registry, and without the consent of the charterer Ukraine wasn’t able to register the boat back.

That charterer is a Cypriot trust, the Beautiful Scenery Cyprus International Trust, who now owns the boat, according to MPI.

Who ultimately owns the trust is a mystery, with the New Zealand government unable to tell Stuff.

The trust’s agent, the British-trained lawyer Panagiotis Neocleous, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for bribery in 2017 on an unrelated matter.

Ukrainian politician Dmytro Dobrodomov described the alleged corruption as “absolutely fantastic” in a 2016 interview and said not a single penny was going to Ukraine, despite the ship operating.

Ukraine is now bringing charges against the fishery worker who chartered the boat.

A 2022 charge sheet said the man, Yuriy Gurin, had made NZ$240,000 (USD 145 K) after he opened accounts in the name of the Ukrainian state fishery in Russia.

His gambit is also alleged to have involved a second Ukrainian ship, the Ivan Golubets – which sank off the coast of Mauritania in 2019 killing two – but which had been in New Zealand in 2012.

Panagiotis Neocleous was approached for comment.

Author: James Halpin | Stuff



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