Russian billionaire Aven battles UK sanctions investigation

ABH Holdings (ABHH) Chairman Petr Aven (L) and head of state-owned nanotechnology agency Rusnano Anatoly Chubais attend a session during the Week of Russian Business, organized by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), in Moscow, Russia March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

LONDON, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Russian billionaire Petr Aven, who Britain is investigating for alleged sanctions evasion, used pots of money parked in British accounts to "squirrel away" cash to fund his lifestyle, a lawyer for British authorities alleged on Tuesday.

Jonathan Hall, representing the National Crime Agency (NCA), told London's High Court that HSBC (HSBA.L) and Monzo bank had both raised red flags about fund transfers in an NCA investigation into nine bank accounts held by six individuals and companies connected to Aven.

"We suspect funds received ... were intended to assist with sanctions evasion," Hall said.

The NCA alleges that Aven, who alongside hundreds of Russians has been sanctioned by Britain and the European Union in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine, intended to use two companies that were supposed to help manage his expenses to evade sanctions.

Lawyers for Aven and the two companies are demanding that two Account Freezing Orders (AFOs) are overturned because of the NCA's "chaotic and unprincipled approach," adding there was no reasonable basis for any "purported suspicion" and that the agency had misled the judge.

The case, the first to test the mettle of Britain's approach to sanctions enforcement, centres on two AFOs and another court's decision to allow Aven to pay basic expenses after he said he had no means to pay household bills.

The NCA, which has set up a unit called Combating Kleptocracy Cell to target those suspected of being part Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, is challenging the other court's decision.

The agency froze about 1.5 million pounds ($1.6 million) as suspected crime proceeds in May after identifying what it called unusual spending patterns, including a 200,000 pound payment to a luxury car dealer.

"This first major sanctions evasion case will set the course for the NCA's strategy going forward and a setback now could seriously derail future efforts," said Helen Taylor, a legal researcher at pressure group Spotlight on Corruption.

($1 = 0.9341 pounds)

Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; Editing by Josie Kao

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.