Yakunin wins final appeal in drone flying over Svalbard legal saga

Yakunin wins final appeal in drone flying over Svalbard legal saga
Andrey Yakunin, the son of Russia’s sanctioned former head of Russian Railways, was finally acquitted in a drone-flying legal saga over the Norwegian island of Svalbard that was banned after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews April 10, 2024

Norway’s Halogaland Court of Appeal concluded a legal saga surrounding British-Russian businessman Andrey Yakunin, the son of Russia’s sanctioned former head of Russian Railways, refusing the prosecution's appeal and effectively affirming his acquittal on charges related to flying a hobby drone in Svalbard, Norway. This decision comes after a protracted two-year legal battle that saw Yakunin arrested in the autumn of 2022 and detained for 52 days.

Yakunin, who was arrested during a sailing expedition in the Arctic archipelago for allegedly violating Norwegian sanctions regulations by flying drones after foreigners were banned from using them in Norway’s airspace following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings.

He expressed relief and vindication, stating: "From day one I have been saying that there is no offence for a British man to fly a drone in Svalbard. However, it has taken almost two years and a complicated legal process... But common sense and justice have inevitably prevailed in the end. I have never committed any criminal offence."

The case, which has passed through various levels of the Norwegian judicial system, including a significant ruling by the Supreme Court in 2023 that briefly overturned an initial acquittal by reclassifying hobby drones as “aircraft” under sanctions regulations, ultimately returned to the district court for re-evaluation. Yakunin's subsequent acquittal at this level was contested once more by the prosecution, only to be upheld by the Court of Appeal's recent refusal to entertain further appeals.

Yakunin's defence team, led by attorneys John Christian Elden and Bernt Heiberg of Elden Advokatfirma, confirmed the finality of his acquittal and the prosecution's decision not to pursue additional appeals. They highlighted the toll the case took on Yakunin, both personally and professionally, amid widespread media coverage that generated both national and international attention.

Reflecting on the court's decision, Yakunin remarked on the broader implications for justice and the rule of law, stating: "The case against me has finally been dismissed and my 3rd and final acquittal is a victory not only for my team and me but first and foremost for common sense... The court’s decision leaves no doubt that there were far better ways to employ public funds than my continued prosecution."

Yakunin, who describes himself as a yachtsman and outdoor sports enthusiast, expressed a desire to restore his reputation within the wider community following the "unfair accusations." His legal counsel, Elden, echoed these sentiments, stressing the need for accountability from Norwegian authorities for the undue emotional and financial strain placed on Yakunin throughout this legal challenge.