By Carlena Knight
Debate began in the first official sitting of the Upper House on Monday regarding the sale of the Russian superyacht Alfa Nero.
An amendment to the Port Authority Act seeks to strengthen the government’s legal standing as it prepares to auction the vessel which was left languishing in Falmouth Harbour for more than a year.
Auctioning the 296-foot boat has been at the forefront of the government’s mind for weeks, with the expectation that, upon passage of the amendment in the Senate, details of the auction will be published in both local and international newspapers.
In her first dialogue since returning to the Upper House, Leader of Government Business in the Senate, Samantha Marshall called on her colleagues to not make this decision an emotional one, but one that focuses on the imminent threat to the security of the socio-economic structure of the country.
She was referring to last week’s incident in the Lower House where the Leader of the Opposition Jamale Pringle and the members on his side walked out of Parliament before sharing their views on the Bill.
“The steps being taken are not unusual steps for a government to have to take. It is unfortunate that the Port Authority legislation as it is now, did not foresee circumstances like this one at the time that it was brought into law, but much has developed since then, and we should not only narrow it to the current circumstances related to the existing yacht, but to other instances where we may have other vessels which may be the subject of criminality, or for which may for whatever reason, be seized or may be even abandoned, but who will carry that cost? How do we as a small island developing state carry that cost?
“The longer we wait to determine what should happen, it is the [more] this vessel will devalue,” Marshall said.
Government previously declared its intention to keep the bulk of the money from the sale after paying off the vessel’s debts, which include $500,000 to the Antigua Yacht Club Marina for fuel.
Proceeds from the sale of the Alfa Nero will be placed in a consolidated fund and used to develop Antigua and Barbuda, according to Prime Minister Gaston Browne.
Offers in excess of US$50 million have already been made by potential buyers, one of them a Russian, PM Browne claimed.
And while Minority Leader in the Senate Shawn Nicholas agrees that it is an important Bill, she mentioned that it “is a complicated, complex matter that should not be rushed”.
Nicholas went on to state that there are a number of questions looming over this matter to include: the rush to make the amendments, the detaining of the boat, the status of the five crew members once the boat is sold, who the boat will be sold to, and who is responsible for the boat now.
These amendments, Nicholas mentioned, are “far reaching and go beyond just the sale of this boat”, and it is for that reason why she called on government to ensure that they abide by the maritime laws.
“The amendments that we are being asked to approve are far-reaching, and are not specific to this vessel, and we have to ask ourselves what will be the implications for those that come after. Why are we now referring to it as an abandoned vessel because as it is, it has not been abandoned?
“What about those persons who may have mortgages on these boats? Are we saying that their interest becomes secondary to the sale? I think that is something that we have to relook, and as I understand it, I think it goes against international maritime laws,” Nicholas said.
She suggested that the money from the sale be put into an escrow account instead of the consolidated fund as there could be possible international backlash which could have external implications for the nation.
Along with those conventions, Nicholas cautioned that already there are organisations that are working tirelessly to recoup funds to help Ukraine through Russian-sanctioned items.
“We have to understand that we have a number of conventions that we have to make sure that we adhere to. This is a major international case. The eyes of the world are on the nation. Who gave us the moral authority to think that the money that we have should go into our consolidated fund? We do not know what will become of this. The war is still on. What if we were to sell and then sanctions are taken upon us? Are we in a position to defend ourselves? I just want to suggest that we are in uncharted waters and we shouldn’t be rushing through this amendment,” she admonished.
Nicholas further called for this Bill, and more so the sale of the boat, be put towards a special committee that could assess and make the proper recommendations on how to proceed.
However, Senator Mary Clare Hurst did not share Nicholas’ sentiments, referring to the matter as one of “commonsense” as it is imperative that “we make a decision with the best interest of the nation to ensure that our waterways do not become compromised”.
“What is a complex matter here is if we sit and allow that vessel to destroy our yachting industry. Our job is to secure our water, and one-and-a-half years, or somewhere in that region that a vessel is sitting in the waters of Antigua and Barbuda, and we are hearing that it is too quick to take an action? I don’t think so. What we are doing right now is removing the possibility of a disaster,” Hurst said.
The Bill was passed yesterday.
The 269-foot yacht which is owned by Russian businessman Andrey Guryev, arrived in Antigua in February last year, the same month Russia invaded Ukraine. A known close associate of Putin’s, Guryev appears on a number of sanctions lists, including those of the US, the UK and the EU.
The yacht boasts an on-board hair salon and spa, and a 12-metre infinity pool capable of converting into a helipad-cum-dancefloor.