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A European court on Wednesday cancelled EU sanctions imposed on the mother of Russian paramilitary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, in an embarrassing setback for Brussels' punitive response to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
The successful legal challenge from Violetta Prigozhina was the first in what is expected to be a series of rulings on complaints lodged by Russians targeted over their alleged support for the war.
In a statement, the EU General Court said even if Prigozhin was responsible for illegal acts in Ukraine, the evidence presented against his mother when the sanctions were applied last year was insufficient.
Prigozhin is the leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which is active in various countries around the world and notably Ukraine, where it is fighting alongside regular units as part of Moscow's invasion.
For several years after Wagner was founded in 2014 the 61-year-old former caterer, who enjoyed lucrative food supply contacts with President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, denied having any ties to it.
But since last year's Russian invasion of Ukraine he has publicly boasted of his role as the private military company's owner in several online videos.
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And he responded to news of his mother's victory with typical bravado. In a statement on social media, Prigozhin said his mother handled the legal challenge herself.
"As for contesting sanctions against me and sanctions against PMC Wagner, I am not going to contest them and I believe that at the moment they are imposed quite reasonably," he said.
The European Union has imposed visa bans and asset freezes on many Russians accused of playing a role in the conflict, starting in March 2014 when Moscow seized Ukraine's Crimea region.
In February last year, the day before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Brussels updated its sanctions lists with several names including that of Prighozin's 83-year-old mother.
Prigozhina challenged the order, however, and on Wednesday the EU court ruled in her favour.
In a statement, it said that even if Prighozin was "responsible for actions undermining the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, the link between Ms Prigozhina and her son established at the time of the adoption of the contested acts is based solely on their family relationship and is therefore not sufficient to justify her inclusion on the contested lists".
Yachts and villas
The EU had argued that Prigozhina owned the Concord Management and Consulting company, a subsidiary of her son's Concord group, and that this was connected to her son's paramilitary activity in Ukraine.
But the court was presented with evidence that she had not been the owner of the company since 2017, even if she is still a shareholder, and ruled that the EU had failed to prove she has business interests with her son.
A senior European official said: "We take note and will assess once detailed ruling is available. To note the decision does not have immediate effect. There is a two-month period for council to appeal."
The official said the European Council, which represents member states, might appeal the ruling or prepare new evidence to put Prigozhina on another sanctions list.
In total, since the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, some 1,473 people and 205 businesses and government agencies have been subject to EU asset freezes and visa bans.
Several of the targets have lodged legal challenges to the orders.
On March 1, the presiding judge at the EU General Court issued an interim order suspending part of the sanctions against Russian Formula One racing driver Nikita Mazepin to allow him to compete.
Several more Russians, including notorious oligarchs, are expected to receive rulings soon that may allow them to claw back some of the 21.5 billion euros in assets such as bank accounts, yachts and villas -- that are frozen in the EU.
"The European Council has sanctioned an incredible number of people on the basis of vague criteria which it has forged itself," Aaron Bass, who represents several Russian clients, told AFP.
"In a democracy, one does not sanction people because of their family ties. It is fortunate that the court recalled this twice in a few days, and regrettable that it had to do so."
The ruling came as Prigozhin claimed in a social media post that Wagner forces had captured the eastern part of the besieged Ukrainian town of Bakhmut after intense fighting.
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