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Billionaire Paul Little Faces Challenges Exiting Investment in Russian Miner 2024

Billionaire businessman Paul Little has disclosed difficulties in divesting his stake in an ASX-listed Russian coal miner currently embroiled in legal proceedings and accused of violating sanctions imposed following the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine.

Former Toll CEO, Paul Little, along with his wife Jane Hansen, who is a prominent businesswoman and serves as the Chancellor of Melbourne University, jointly own 5.6 per cent of Tigers Realm Coal. The company operates in the Arctic region of Siberia, extracting coal and exporting it to Asian markets.

According to the Financial Review Rich List, Mr. Little boasts a fortune of $1.83 billion. The couple’s ownership in Tigers Realm Coal is held through their private entity, Namarong Investments.

Last year, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) officials stated that Tigers Realm was “likely” in breach of Australia’s sanctions laws, introduced after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This compelled Tigers Realm to initiate Federal Court action to challenge the assessment. A hearing occurred on Monday in Canberra.

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“Our shareholding is on the market, it has been for at least two years. Until the current legal issues are resolved, it’s not easy to sell,” Mr. Little told The Australian Financial Review in his first comments since DFAT’s assessment. “We’re trying not to hold onto it.”

“For a number of reasons, it has never paid a dividend since we’ve had it,” he said, adding that he did not want to comment on the litigation while it was before the courts. “We’ve taken the decision to divest the shareholding.”

The legal action, marking the first test of restrictions imposed under the Autonomous Sanctions Act, could potentially force the coal miner out of business if Federal Court judge Geoffrey Kennett sides with DFAT officials. The case revolves around the court’s interpretation of what constitutes the “transport” of sanctioned goods under the law.

Christopher Ward, SC, representing Tigers, argued before the Federal Court that Australia’s sanctions regime did not apply to the miner, asserting that the law “excluded transport of the coal within Russia to the port.” He contended that the definition of transport under the sanctions law solely related to moving goods on the high seas or over a land border.

However, Perry Herzfeld, SC, representing DFAT, urged the court to dismiss this “irrational” argument. “There’s certainly nothing in the explanatory memorandum or materials … which suggests any narrowing of the focus to transport a particular kind,” he said.

“Transport within Russia is for the purpose of export of Russian coal,” he argued. “And inhibiting that transport … tends to inhibit the trade in Russian coal. And that’s plainly the [Australian] intention of the sanctions directed at Russia.”

He further requested the court to disregard Mr. Ward’s “extreme and distorting” claims that DFAT’s interpretation of transport would encompass an Australian citizen living in Moscow using Russian coal to heat their flat.

Tigers Realm has been operating thermal and coking coal mines in Siberia since 2017, and last week reported a net profit of $46 million from $140 million in revenue in the year to December 31. The harsh winters in Siberia mean Tigers Realm can only ship coal to customers for between six and eight months every year from the Bering Sea coast in the Russian Far East of Chukotka.

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