German court prohibits retention of property seized as part of illegal searches in Alisher Usmanov investigation
1 November 2023. The Frankfurt am Main Court has issued another landmark decision that recognises the General Prosecutor's Office's unlawful retention of documents and property seized in Germany as part of investigative actions against Alisher Usmanov, and orders that the property be returned to its owners.
In the fall of 2022, German prosecutors and the Federal Criminal Police Office conducted a series of high-profile searches in the Bavarian town of Rottach-Eggern, on the Dilbar yacht in Hamburg, and in a small apartment belonging to the family of a friend of Alisher Usmanov near Frankfurt am Main. The searches were carried out with the involvement of large police forces, including armed special forces, and received widespread media coverage. In May 2023, the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court ruled that four search warrants issued in the money laundering investigation on which the German prosecutor's office and police acted were unlawful. The court concluded that there was no initial suspicion of a crime, and found the arguments of the prosecutor's office to be no more than “vague suspicions” and “unsubstantiated speculation.”
Mr Usmanov's lawyers subsequently filed appeals asking that the prosecutor's office stop using the documents and property seized during the searches and return them to their owners. On 26 October 2023, the Frankfurt am Main Local Court satisfied these claims. The court established that the retention of seized property by German law enforcement authorities was unlawful and should be terminated, and the items in question should be returned to their last known owners.
Moreover, the court emphasized that Mr Usmanov was still in need of legal protection because the Public Prosecutor General's Office in Frankfurt am Main continued to retain the seized property for its own purposes, despite the search warrants having been recognised as unlawful.
Mr Usmanov’s defense representatives have repeatedly called his prosecution groundless and politically motivated, and have pointed to numerous violations of the law on the part of Germany’s law enforcement agencies. In particular, they have argued that the continued retention by the prosecutor's office of property seized during searches that were recognised as illegal was obviously a deliberate action, despite the legal unambiguity of the court’s decision.
Lawyers Dr Peter Gauweiler, a retired minister in the Bavarian government, and Dr Thomas Fischer, a retired presiding judge of the German Supreme Court specialising in German criminal law and criminal procedure, who represent the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Germany, commented:
"The actions of the German investigative authorities against Alisher Usmanov can be characterised as a cascade of illegal actions that offend the notions of justice and legality. Presented to the public as an impressive demonstration of political resolve, they in no way fulfil the principle of proportionality, which is the standard of law enforcement in a state governed by the rule of law. The decision of the Frankfurt Local Court once again reminds the German law enforcement authorities of the need to respect the laws of our country and of the inadmissibility of arbitrary behaviour, including in relation to foreign nationals."
Joachim Nikolaus Steinhöfel, a Hamburg-based media law attorney who represents Mr Usmanov, said:
“From the very beginning, the investigative actions against Mr Usmanov in Germany have been flawed, intentionally exposed to the public, and were conducted with numerous violations of the law. That is why it is important that these actions are consistently and successfully challenged in court. In May, a Frankfurt am Main court reached four legally binding verdicts stating that the theatrical, high-profile searches conducted last fall by police and prosecutors in various German cities were lawless and illegal. The court later ruled that the search of the Munich law office of Mr Usmanov’s defense attorneys, which was an attempt at intimidation, was unlawful as well. This raises the question: how many more court decisions are needed before German law enforcement officials start to abide by the laws of this country and to fulfill their duties?”
Background on Alisher Usmanov’s legal defense proceedings in Germany
On 12 May 2023, the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court struck down four search warrants issued for real estate properties and the Dilbar yacht in Germany on the grounds that they were unlawful. In addition, in the spring of 2023, press releases about searches conducted at various properties in Germany were removed from the official website of the German Federal Criminal Police Office. Earlier, the Munich Public Prosecutor's Office had also removed a press release about searches conducted at real estate properties in Germany.
Germany's largest news agency, as well as a number of leading German media outlets, corrected or removed their articles in a pre-trial order in which Mr Usmanov was falsely attributed with ownership of real estate and other properties (including the Dilbar yacht) in Germany. Meanwhile, dozens of individuals and legal entities (including major European media outlets) voluntarily signed statements on the cessation of unlawful actions against Mr Usmanov, pledging to refrain from disseminating inaccurate or defamatory claims about him. In addition, a German court issued a number of injunctions in favour of Mr Usmanov, including injunctions against the dissemination of information about his alleged ownership of various properties in Germany that is attributed to him by law enforcement authorities. In August 2023, a court in Hamburg issued an unprecedented ruling regarding the use of the term “oligarch” in relation to Mr Usmanov, thereby undermining one of the key justifications for the EU sanctions against him.
In June 2023, Mr Usmanov filed a complaint with the German Constitutional Court regarding the violation of fundamental rights enshrined in the German Basic Law (Constitution) and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The complaint raises the issue of whether the guarantees of human dignity that make up part of Germany’s so-called “constitutional identity” are compatible with the personal EU sanctions imposed against Mr Usmanov.
In July 2023, the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court ruled that a search warrant issued by the Frankfurt am Main Local Court in January 2023 to search the Munich law office representing Mr Usmanov in Germany was unlawful and ordered that it be annulled. The actions of the prosecutor's office were also successfully appealed as unlawful.
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