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E.T.I. Euro Telecom International N.V. v. Republic of Bolivia

July 30, 2008

E.T.I. EURO TELECOM INTERNATIONAL N.V., PLAINTIFF,
v.
REPUBLIC OF BOLIVIA, AND EMPRESA NACIONAL DE TELECOMMUNICACIONES ENTEL S.A., DEFENDANTS.



MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff E.T.I. Euro Telecom International N.V. ("ETI" or "Plaintiff") moves, pursuant to N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 6211, for an order confirming the Ex Parte Order of Attachment entered on May 5, 2008, pursuant to which monies belonging to Defendant Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones Entel S.A. ("Entel"), held on deposit in various New York City bank accounts, have been attached for the purpose of satisfying any arbitral award that may be obtained by Plaintiff against Defendant the Republic of Bolivia ("Bolivia") in a separate arbitration action.

Defendants oppose Plaintiff's motion, asserting, inter alia, that the Court lacks jurisdiction to attach Entel's assets, seeking dissolution of the levied attachments and seeking an order requiring Plaintiff to pay costs and damages sustained by reason of the attachments.

The Court has considered thoroughly the parties' submissions. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion is denied, the attachment is vacated and Defendants' request for an award of costs and damages is denied without prejudice.

BACKGROUND

The following material facts are undisputed for purposes of the instant motion practice unless otherwise noted. Plaintiff ETI is a Dutch corporation. In 1995, Defendant Entel, a Bolivian telecommunications company, was privatized, and ETI entered into a series of agreements with Defendants Bolivia and Entel whereby ETI obtained 50% ownership of Entel's shares, and Bolivia held approximately 47.5% of Entel's shares.

In September 2005, Entel distributed about $400 million in capital to its shareholders. The distribution was not taxed. In January 2006, Evo Morales took office as President of Bolivia and, in July of that year, Bolivia imposed $26 million in taxes on Entel for the September 2005 capital distribution and $30 million in penalties and interest. Entel disputed these levies. In March and April 2007, Bolivian officials accused Entel of not being in compliance with various contractual obligations in connection with Entel's privatization, and imposed additional taxes and penalties upon Entel.

At this time, a bilateral investment treaty ("BIT") between Bolivia and the Netherlands was in force. It provided, inter alia, that Bolivia would "ensure fair and equitable treatment to the investments of" Dutch nationals. The BIT included a dispute resolution mechanism whereby any investment disputes between a Dutch national and Bolivia (or vice versa) would be submitted for arbitration to the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes ("ICSID"). On October 12, 2007, ETI initiated arbitration proceedings before ICSID against Bolivia. Bolivia objected to ICSID's jurisdiction of the action, and the arbitration proceedings are currently pending.

On May 1, 2008, President Morales announced that Bolivia was nationalizing ETI's interest in Entel, and he issued a decree that would purportedly transfer ETI's shares in Entel to Bolivia. The Bolivian government also took over Entel's management operations. ETI asserts, as a matter of law, that it still owns 50% of the shares of Entel notwithstanding the decree, while Defendants assert that Bolivia now owns 97.5% of Entel's shares as a result of the decree.

Entel currently maintains funds in three banks in New York City. According to a declaration submitted by ETI, these funds have been used for various purposes, including the payment of taxes to Bolivia, the receipt of interconnection fees, and the payment of dividends. (See Decl. of Franco Bertone*fn1 dated June 23, 2008 ¶¶ 22-30.)

On May 5, 2008, soon after President Morales issued the nationalization decree, ETI filed a complaint against Defendants seeking the attachment of bank accounts in New York in aid of arbitration, and moved ex parte for the entry of an order of attachment of both Bolivia's and Entel's property located in the Southern District of New York. Judge Chin, sitting as Part I judge, denied ETI's motion to attach Bolivia's property, but granted ETI's application with respect to Entel's property, including Entel's New York bank accounts. Judge Chin also ordered that ETI deposit with the Clerk of Court a standby Letter of Credit or other undertaking in the amount of $250,000 as security. ETI subsequently moved to confirm the order of attachment and posted a Letter of Credit. It appears that approximately $36 million of Entel's assets in New York have thus far been attached.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff asserts that the Court has subject matter jurisdiction of the underlying action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 9 U.S.C. § 203 because the action falls under the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. Defendants, however, assert that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act ("FSIA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1602 et. seq., renders Defendants' property immune from the jurisdiction of this Court. The FSIA provides that the property of a foreign state or the property of an "agency or instrumentality of a foreign state" is immune from prejudgment attachment unless the immunity is explicitly waived, among other requirements. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1603, 1609, 1610(d).*fn2

It is undisputed that the attached New York bank accounts belong to Entel, not Bolivia. Defendants assert that Entel is nonetheless entitled to FSIA protection as an "agency or instrumentality" of Bolivia due to Bolivia's majority shareholder interest in Entel*fn3 and argue that, because Entel has not explicitly waived its immunity from attachment, Entel's property is immune from prejudgment attachment under FSIA. Plaintiff disputes Defendants' assertion that Entel is an agency or instrumentality of Bolivia, arguing that Bolivia does not currently own a majority of shares or other ownership interest in Entel, notwithstanding the nationalization decree.

The Court need not resolve the question of whether Entel is an agency or instrumentality of Bolivia because, even if Plaintiff is correct that Entel is not an agency or instrumentality of Bolivia and that the FSIA therefore does not immunize its assets from prejudgment attachment, Plaintiff has failed to identify a valid basis for the attachment of Entel's ...


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