EU court upholds sanctions on Putin's businessman friend over Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and businessman Arkady Rotenberg (L) visits the site of the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait in Kerch, Crimea, September 15, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin via REUTERS

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - An EU court on Wednesday upheld sanctions imposed on Arkady Rotenberg, a close ally and former judo partner of Russian President Vladimir Putin whose company won a contract to build a bridge linking the Russian mainland with annexed Crimea.

Rotenberg had appealed against the asset freeze and travel ban the EU imposed on him as part of a package of sanctions against more than 150 officials, military personnel and Putin associates to protest against Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The General Court of the European Union, the EU’s second-highest court, ruled that the EU had given sufficient evidence for the measures against him in 2015-16, although not in 2014-2015.

The sanctions still hold because while the bloc had not shown in the earlier period that Rotenberg had benefited from contracts or been favored by Putin at the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it provided more proof for 2015-2016.

The annulment for 2014-15 amounts only to a technicality, according to a person familiar with the judgment.

For the later period, the EU had justified its sanctions with more arguments against Rotenberg, including the bridge construction contract awarded to his company Stroygazmontazh and evidence of his involvement in a public relations exercise to persuade Crimean children that they are Russian.

The court said Rotenberg did not deny his ownership of the company or the award of the contract. It said the bridge would consolidate the integration of Crimea into Russia.

Rotenberg, said the court, was also chairman of publishing house Prosveshcheniye (Enlightenment), which was involved in the campaign established on Putin’s orders to align Crimea to Russian educational standards.

This project also supported Russia’s policy of integrating Crimea into Russia and undermined the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the court found.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Robin Emmott and Mark Trevelyan