The Russian oligarch has been denied access to funds to maintain the Surrey mansion
A Russian oligarch has been blocked from using cash parked in frozen bank accounts to pay for upkeep at his Surrey mansion.
Petr Aven, a banking tycoon with a £300m art collection, is accused of using two business accounts to evade sanctions imposed on him over his links to Vladimir Putin.
Accounts containing around £1.5million were frozen by the National Crime Agency (NCA) in May, before a district judge eased restrictions in July so Aven could use the money to pay his mansion’s utility and security bills.
But the High Court has now overturned the July ruling – revoking the access granted to Mr Aven – and ordered the Westminster Magistrates’ Court to review the case in full.
However, in a swipe at the NCA, it also ordered the magistrate court to reconsider whether the account freezing orders should be overturned entirely.
In a decision released Wednesday, Judge Collins Rice said District Judge John Zani misapplied the law and that his decision was “erroneous, unjust and excessively speculative.”
The judge said Mr Aven’s attempt to ease restrictions on bank accounts needed to be ‘re-examined and the decision made properly’. She rejected both the NCA’s argument that the case was so legally sound that the orders could not be challenged and the opposing claims by Mr Aven’s lawyers that they clearly should have been overturned. .
“The fact that the two sides continue to offer diametrically opposed versions of what this one legitimate decision might be rather underscores the point,” Judge Collins Rice wrote.
Anti-corruption campaigners have warned the decision raises ‘troubling questions’ about the authorities’ ability to enforce the UK’s sanctions regime, with the case seen as a major first test.
Helen Taylor, Senior Legal Researcher at Spotlight on Corruption, said: “This serious setback for the NCA shows how difficult it is in the UK to undertake proactive enforcement of sanctions.”
Mr Aven has been described as an ally of Vladimir Putin by the British government and was photographed with the Russian president on the day the invasion of Ukraine began.
He has an estimated fortune of £4billion, stemming from an empire that includes Russia’s biggest commercial bank and a stake in retailer owner Holland & Barrett, and was sanctioned by UK and EU authorities in March .
However, the NCA claims he sought to use business bank accounts held in the name of Ingliston Management Ltd and Lodge Security Team Ltd as a private “piggy bank” to evade the sanctions imposed on him.
The tycoon does not have a UK bank account and he is said to have sent money from Austria-based trusts to UK companies, which manage his estate and family expenses on his behalf.
And while Mr Aven says he wants to use the money to cover essential expenses, up to £140,000 a month, much of which is for maintaining his art collection, the NCA claims that the relaxation of the freezing orders will simply allow him to empty the accounts and escape punishment if he is then prosecuted.
During the High Court battle, the agency highlighted alleged sanctions breaches involving accounts linked to the oligarch, including deals to fund a £200,000 payment to car dealers and a £160,000 transaction £ supposed to mask the sale of a Bentley.
Hugo Keith KC, representing Mr Aven, insisted the NCA was wrong to claim money transferred from Austria breached sanctions.
He argued that the freezing orders had been overturned due to the NCA’s “chaotic and unprincipled approach”, adding that there was no reasonable basis for any “alleged suspicion” and that previous representations of the agency in court had been misleading.