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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

SPI Offices Raided, Documents Seized

Police confiscated several boxes of documents belonging to exiled tycoon Yury Shefler's SPI Group after a 22-hour raid at the vodka exporters' Moscow offices, the company said Friday.

"Work has been completely paralyzed," said Sergei Boguslavsky, deputy general director of SPI's Moscow office.

Officers from the Moscow branch of the Interior Ministry descended on SPI's offices on Dolgorukovskaya Ulitsa at about 10 a.m. Thursday, according to officials.

After gathering employees into one room, about 20 officers began combing through the company's financial statements, and by 8 a.m. the following day 10 boxes of documents and the company's computer server had been packed up and driven away, Boguslavsky said.

"It took them so long because they had four floors to rifle through," he said.

An Interior Ministry spokeswoman said the raid was organized by the Moscow's branch's main investigative division.

SPI lawyers said the search warrant was granted as part of a criminal case opened earlier this year against Andrei Skurikhin, who heads Swiss-based SPI's Moscow operations. Skurikhin, who is currently abroad, is charged with using vodka trademarks the government says SPI purchased illegally in 1997.

While head of Soyuzplodoimport -- the successor to the Soviet Union's food and drink export-import agency -- Shefler created his own company called Soyuzplodimport, now SPI's Moscow branch, and sold scores of state-owned trademarks to himself for what the government says was next to nothing.

He has since registered those trademarks, including the popular brands Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya, in more than 100 countries and expects global sales of more than $700 million this year.

In Russia, however, the government, after a protracted court battle, has regained the rights to 17 of the trademarks. And last month Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev was on hand as a triumphant Soyuzplodoimport re-launched production of Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya and announced it intended to challenge SPI abroad.

Boguslavsky said the government is now trying to drive SPI out of Russia altogether. It has already succeeded in forcing the company to shift production of its best-known brands from Kaliningrad to Latvia, but SPI still produces some lesser-known brands here, and the Agriculture Ministry, which controls Soyuzplodoimport, is not happy about it, he said.

Shefler is wanted for questioning by the Prosecutor General's Office for allegedly threatening to kill Soyuzplodoimport chief Vladimir Loginov. But Shefler, who is believed to be living in Europe, has said he has no intention of returning to Russia.

Soyuzplodoimport spokeswoman Natalia Ilina declined to comment, saying it was a matter for police.

SPI insists it acquired the trademarks legally and Soyuzplodoimport is breaking the law by producing Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya. Boguslavsky intends to challenge the prosecutor's office.

"We are trying to show that the case against Skurikhin is illegal. What criminal case can there be if the trademarks were taken in violation of the law?" he said. "But our hopes are thin."