Yacht Crew Charged in Hydra Fireworks Case, But Passengers Walk Free

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

Published Jun 25, 2024 2:46 PM by The Maritime Executive


Greek authorities have arrested and charged the crew of a luxury yacht on suspicion of starting a wildfire with a volley of banned fireworks, but the charter passengers - a group of prominent Kazakh oligarchs - have been allowed to leave the country.

An extreme fire risk warning was in effect for central Greece last week, along with a burn ban. On Friday, a forest fire broke out on the island of Hydra, a popular tourist destination south of Athens. The blaze burned through 3,000 acres of pine forest overnight, and the authorities had to dispatch six aircraft and two firefighting teams to the area - taking responders away from other fires that were raging elsewhere in Greece. 

According to prosecutors, the blaze on Hydra was sparked by a volley of fireworks launched from the deck of the 175-foot superyacht Persefoni I. The skipper of another vessel said that he saw fireworks or flares coming from the yacht, according to local media reports. Local residents also reported watching the Persefoni's crew make an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the fire. 

On the yacht's return to Piraeus, 13 crewmembers were taken into custody and charged on suspicion of arson, and the vessel itself was arrested. The seven Kazakh nationals who chartered the yacht, however, were allowed to go free, according to local media. They were never questioned by investigators, and they have since departed the country. 

The seven passengers allegedly had ties to the business empire of Kazakhstan's long-ruling former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, an alleged kleptocrat who was forced out of his country amidst a wave of protests in 2022. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the passenger manifest 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. 

If the yacht's crewmembers are convicted of arson for starting the fire, they could face serious penalties, including as much as 20 years of prison time. The crewmembers are scheduled to enter a plea on Wednesday.