Greek Prosecutors Charge Kazakh Oligarchs Over Megayacht Fire Scandal

The yacht Persefoni I off Hydra as the fire blazes (Greek Wildland Firefighters)
The yacht Persefoni I off Hydra as the fire blazes (Greek Wildland Firefighters)

Published Jun 30, 2024 6:54 PM by The Maritime Executive


Greek prosecutors have brought criminal charges against eight Kazakh charter yacht passengers for "moral complicity in arson" in connection with a disastrous wildfire earlier this month. 

On June 21, a fire broke out on the island of Hydra, a popular vacation destination south of Athens. The blaze spread overnight and burned about 300 acres of the island's only pine forest, prompting a local outcry.

According to prosecutors, the blaze on Hydra was sparked by passengers or crew from the 175-foot superyacht Persefoni I. Another vessel was moored nearby at the time of the incident, and the captain told Greek outlet Aftodioikisi that he saw the Persefoni I's inflatable tender boat on shore as the hillside blazed. The personnel on the beach appeared to be collecting objects, he said, and then the tender returned to the yacht. There were crewmembers in turnout gear on the Persefoni's bow, the captain said, and there were signs of firefighting chemicals on the water near shore. 

After departing the scene, the Persefoni transited to the marina at Vouliagmeni, just south of Athens. The Hellenic Coast Guard and fire safety officials met the vessel at the dock, and they took verbal statements from some of those on board, according to Aftodioikisi. The eight Kazakh nationals who chartered the yacht denied involvement in the fire, and they asked to disembark and leave so that they would make their departure flight on time.  

Greece's Directorate of Internal Affairs has launched an investigation into the coast guard's decision to release the charter passengers when they arrived at the marina, even before examining the scene of the incident on Hydra for evidence. Last week, long after the fire started, investigators returned to the scene to look for clues - and they found traces from expended pyrotechnic devices on the beach. The evidence will be examined for DNA traces and fingerprints. The authorities' current working theory is that a small number of individuals from the yacht (possibly young) went ashore using the tender, then lit flares on the beach, according to local outlet Eirinika. 

Though the passengers were released, 13 of the yacht's crewmembers were taken into custody and charged on suspicion of arson. The vessel itself was arrested. The captain and the chief mate are being held pending trial, while the rest of the crew has been released on bail. 

In a statement last week, the master of Persefoni I denied that anyone on board had involvement in the fire. "No use of flares, sparklers or fireworks of any kind was ever made by anyone on or off the yacht. In a relevant check, all the naval flares were found intact. The witness of a passing boat explicitly mentions in his testimony that he never spoke of fireworks being launched from the yacht Persefoni I," he said. 

According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the passengers allegedly had ties to the business empire of Kazakhstan's long-ruling former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. OCCRP obtained the passenger manifest, which included an executive from Nazarbayev's circle, Daniyar Abulgazin; his wife, Aidan Suleimenova; their son; and Suleimenova's assistant. The others included Umut Shayakhmetova, head of Kazakhstan's largest bank; her husband Beimbet Shayakhmetov, a former oil executive; and their daughter. 

Flight tracking data shows that Abulgazin's private jet departed Athens the day after the fire and flew directly to Kazakhstan's capital, according to OCCRP.  

In a statement issued on Sunday, Abulgazin denied any involvement in starting the wildfire, and he emphasized that the group's departure for Kazakhstan on June 22 was on a preplanned flight. 

"Neither I nor my guests carried out any actions that could lead to a fire. We strictly followed the fire safety rules established on the yacht. Neither I nor my guests asked the crew of the yacht or any other third parties to take any actions that could lead to a fire," said Abulgazin. "We will cooperate with the Greek authorities in their ongoing investigation. In light of the ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment or speculate further at this time.”