Dutch court says seizure of vodka assets by Yukos shareholders was illegal

AMSTERDAM, Oct 27 (Reuters) - A Dutch court on Tuesday lifted the seizure of vodka brands Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya by shareholders of now defunct Russian oil giant Yukos, who are seeking to reclaim more than $50 billion in lost assets from Moscow.

The ruling by judges at the district court of The Hague overturned the seizure in May of the well-known trademarks, which had been claimed as assets of the Russian state.

A Dutch appeals court in February overturned the annulment of a $50 billion award to Yukos shareholders, a surprise ruling 13 years after the assets came under control of the Kremlin. That case is pending at the Dutch Supreme Court.

Tuesday’s decision, a preliminary ruling in the ongoing international legal battle, found the seizure of assets in May had been unlawful.

The assets, held by Russian state company FKP Sojuzplodoimport, cannot be considered as an object of recovery of the Russian Federation, the court found.

“It was time this frivolous action, for which there is no basis in the law, came to a halt,” said Joris van Manen, a lawyer representing FKP Sojuzplodoimport. He added that Yukos shareholders would now have to scrap their planned auction of the trademarks.

A representative of Yukos shareholders said they were studying the ruling and considering possible further legal steps.

Yukos Oil went bankrupt in 2006 after oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky fell out with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the government began demanding billions of dollars in alleged back taxes that ultimately resulted in its being expropriated by the state.

Most of Yukos’ assets were absorbed by the Kremlin’s flagship oil producer Rosneft, and its former owners have for years been trying to recover their possessions.

Legal proceedings seeking damages have been brought in the Netherlands by the subsidiaries of GML, formerly known as Group Menatep Ltd., which held around 70% of the shares in Yukos. (Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; editing by David Evans)