SHADOWY Scottish companies broke international sanctions against Russia by importing goods into Crimea which was annexed by Moscow almost three years ago.

Scotland's increasingly-notorious corporate secrecy regime has been exploited to break the sanctions which were imposed by the European Union, the USA and other countries after Russian troops moved into Crimea, then part of Ukraine, in November 2014 in support of pro-Russian separatists involved in the country's civil war.

The Sunday Herald can reveal that some of the criminals running the embargo on trade have hidden behind anonymous Scottish shell firms.

Loading article content

This means that authorities have struggled to identify the real owners of a sanctions-busting ship lying abandoned off Istanbul for more than two years.

The crew of the 745-ton Tallas – officially owned by a firm registered alongside hundreds of others at an Inverness council house – were left for at least eight months stranded off the Turkish port with nothing to drink but rain water and nothing to eat but fish they caught.

The tenant of the Inverness house is 41-year-old David MacMillan, an auxiliary nurse who earns less than £20,000 a year. MacMillan used to share his home with a partner, a Latvian called Liene Brice. He explains, "Years ago my ex got an email from a former schoolmate looking for people in the UK to help with processing letters. The friend said she would give us a scanner and we could scan letters that came in. We agreed, telling them to send the money to my then partner's mother in Latvia."

Then came the letters, sometimes scores a day, 500 a week. For a while, Brice scanned them. Then the police came. "They told me we were dealing with fraud and I could not believe it. We tried to help her mum to find out we were actually helping other people without knowing," he says. Now he simply bags the mail and hands it over to the authorities.

The scandal of the Tallas – and at least one other officially Scottish-owned embargo-running ship blacklisted by Ukrainian authorities – comes two years after the Sunday Herald first revealed the wholesale abuse of an obscure kind of firm, the Scottish limited partnership or SLP, by international criminals.

After a campaign led by this paper and the ex-SNP MP Roger Mullin earlier this summer, the UK Government, which controls Scots corporate law, ordered all SLPs to reveal their real owners of "persons of significant control".

Only a tiny fraction of the 30,000 SLPs on the books off Britain's corporate registry, Companies House, have complied with new openness rules amid concerns further reforms will be needed to clean up the industry.

The SLPs we can expose as sanctions-busters -– Importica of Inverness and Edison Project of Edinburgh – have both now been dissolved and will never have to reveal their owners, who are unidentified and uncontactable.

Importica's theoretical partners were themselves shell firms from Belize in Central America while Edison Project was formed by two firms from the equally-opaque tax haven of the Seychelles.

Crimea

HeraldScotland:

Yet the two firms were used as the agents, owners and managers of the Tallas and another ship, the Vitaliy Satik, to avoid criminal charges by Ukraine and the EU on any vessels visiting Crimea for trade.

Their real owners – or their representatives – are understood to be in Crimea or Ukraine.

Shipping lawyers believe that it was illegal for the two SLPs, as British and EU entities, to trade with Crimea.

The Tallas, in particular, also used a "flag of convenience" from the South east Asian nation of Cambodia. That country has become so embarrassed by the flagging other nations' ships that it has stopped doing so.

International observers warn of the dangers of ships using offshore firms for owners, such as Scottish ones, and flags of convenience like Cambodia's.

Andrii Klymenko is an expert who monitors sanctions-busting in Crimea for a think tank called the Maidan of Foreign Affairs. Kiev-based Klymenko stresses that the 'Scottish ships' broke Ukrainian law. Most such embargo-busters now avoid entering Ukrainian ports, fearing arrest and seizure.

"They understand and they are afraid," Klymenko said.

But he suggests the story of the Tallas and the Vitaliy Satik – now back in Ukraine and renamed the Sandra – could end up back in Scotland. Ukraine's prosecutors, police and SBU secret service are working with international partners to trace foreign fronts and vessels outside Ukraine.

Klymenko said: "I am sure that in the near future we shall see formal investigations of sanction-busting in those countries which support the sanctions." And that, of course, includes the UK.

Jacqueline Smith, maritime organiser for the International Transport Workers' Federation, told the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia that a flag of convenience "allows abuses and enshrines secrecy, protecting the abusers".

Glasgow Central SNP MP Alison Thewliss said: "To find ourselves in a circumstance where a blockade-running ship theoretically has an anonymous owner yet has been operated via a house in Inverness demonstrates precisely why the campaign around Scottish Limited Partnerships is absolutely imperative. The opaque structures of shell companies and SLPs have provided an ideal platform for criminality to flourish.

"In this instance the flag flown by the ship was Cambodian, the ship is sinking off Istanbul, the actual address of the owner is in Crimea, and yet the address provided for the owner is a home in Inverness.

"The so-called flags of convenience hold links to some of the most harrowing experiences of international criminality, from providing a platform for human trafficking to enabling the violation of sanctions. To begin to tackle this, we must expose and eradicate blockade-running ships. To do so involves significantly enhancing transparency around the shell companies that so many of them are being operated by."

Alison Thewliss MP

HeraldScotland: Alison Thewliss

Two years ago the Sunday Herald revealed that $1billion had been looted from three banks in impoverished Moldova using SLPs, five of which shared the same Inverness address, MacMillan's, as Importica. Since then it has emerged that SLPs were used as fronts for everything from mass copyright theft and diet pill pushers to child porn and corrupt arms dealers.

The businesses, as this newspaper revealed, played a key part in the biggest money-laundering scheme ever uncovered, the so-called £20bn Russian laundromat.