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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Aircraft magnate accused of ‘secret plot’ to smear RAK ruler

US-Iranian businessman devised plans to embroil drug cartels in emirate’s business affairs, London court hears

Farhad Azima denies involvement in a strategy to denigrate Ras Al Khaimah by orchestrating dubious business deals. AP
Farhad Azima denies involvement in a strategy to denigrate Ras Al Khaimah by orchestrating dubious business deals. AP

A US-Iranian aviation executive is accused of plotting to secretly involve Latin American drug cartels in the business affairs of Ras Al Khaimah, as part of a sophisticated smear campaign against the emirate’s Ruler, a London court has heard.

Farhad Azima, 75, a veteran businessman and fixer, is accused of devising plans for scams, frauds and to “manufacture dissent” to denigrate Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi as part of a multimillion-dollar legal dispute, court documents show.

The vendetta is strongly denied by Mr Azima, whose lawyers said he was “absolutely gutted” about the allegations made against him.

The alleged plans involved enrolling major drug players in business projects to generate “stories about money laundering, tax evasion, and even terrorist financing” to create bad publicity for the emirate, say lawyers for Ras Al Khaimah’s investment authority, Rakia, which is suing Mr Azima in the London courts.

“Documents uncovered by Rakia demonstrate that from around 2014 onwards, Mr Azima played a pivotal role in devising and orchestrating a malicious and sophisticated smear campaign designed to inflict serious damage to the reputation of the Ruler of RAK and the governing authorities,” the authority’s lawyers say.

Details of the plot came to light after Mr Azima’s email accounts were hacked and the contents released on the “Dark Web”, a part of the internet that cannot be reached by regular search engines.

Mr Azima, an Iranian-born US citizen and chief executive of an aircraft leasing company, claims that the hack was a state-sponsored effort to discredit him during his continuing and bitter legal battle with Rakia.

The authority is suing him for breaching the terms of a $2.6 million (Dh9.5m) settlement agreement struck after a business deal went wrong.

Rakia said it had nothing to do with the hacking operation and that an outside company working on its behalf discovered the documents during a trawl of the internet.

Mr Azima “vehemently rejects and denies” he was involved in a smear campaign, his lawyers said. The allegations were based on material included in a “security assessment” for an unnamed client found among the hacked material.

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A judge ruled on Wednesday that Rakia could use the hacked documents as part of a growing civil claim launched in 2016 against the aviation magnate in the UK courts – though Mr Azima’s lawyers said they would challenge the use of hacked documents in the UK case.

Judge Philip Kramer said Rakia’s claim was centred on an alleged plot “to suggest that RAK is a place where on should not do business and get other Emirates to put pressure on RAK … to be less aggressive towards the person described as the client”.

The 11-page security assessment – seen by The National – advises taking the offensive as “a measure of last resort”. It does not name Mr Azima in the document. His solicitor, Sarosh Zaiwalla, said no plot was carried out and there was no evidence that his client was part of it.

The assessment was a “defensive document” compiled after Rakia started investigating alleged frauds and “not some advice to go on the warpath and bring down Rakia,” Mr Azima’s barrister Tim Lord, QC, told London’s High Court. “It twists this document to make that allegation.”

Mr Azima in 2016 launched a $20 million legal claim against Rakia in the United States, where he lives, claiming that it was responsible for hacking his emails and text messages in 2015 and 2016. The hack targeted his business and personal laptops and resulted in “disparaging material” being published online.

The London court battle is just a small part of a multinational attempt in criminal and civil courts by Rakia to go after former employees and their associates who they claim are responsible for a series of frauds that amounted to millions of dollars.

The dispute centres on Rakia’s former chief executive, Dr Khater Massaad, who along with two other men, were sentenced in their absence to 15 years in prison in the UAE last year for allegedly defrauding Rakia over the sale of a sea port in Georgia.

Mr Massaad has strongly denied what he said were “trumped up charges” levelled against him.

Mr Massaad, who was detained in Saudi Arabia in 2016, ran Rakia from 2007 until 2012. The authority’s lawyers told a London court that the client referred to in the security assessment was Dr Massaad.

“It’s his [Mr Azima’s] advice how to fight back against the emirate which we say is particularly scandalous and reprehensible,” Hugh Tomlinson QC, the barrister for Rakia, told the High Court.

Mr Azima, who once had a close business and personal relationship with the ruler, said that he was brought in by Rakia in 2015-16 to help mediate the dispute with Mr Massaad. He had worked on “multiple business ventures” with Rakia over the previous decade and had been paid more than $7 million, according to US court documents.

He claims that Rakia has set out to damage him as part of its broader campaign against Dr Massaad. Mr Azima claims that he was told by Rakia’s British lawyer that he would be made “collateral damage” in a war that Rakia would wage against Dr Massaad after talks broke down. Rakia denied that claim.

Rakia started legal action against him in 2016 in the UK accusing him of paying a bribe of $0.5m to Dr Massaad.

It also accused him of taking an “improper secret commission” during an aborted attempt to sell the Sheraton Metechi Palace Hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia – then owned by a Rakia subsidiary – to three Iranian buyers in 2011.

A trial to investigate the allegations is due to be held in London next year.

Mr Azima is a prominent political donor who has given money to Bill Clinton’s legal defence fund after he was impeached over an affair with a White House intern. He also donated to Hillary Clinton’s Senate and 2008 presidential run and to Republicans, according to a 2016 interview with a Kansas newspaper.

Mr Azima appeared in court on Tuesday but was absent for Wednesday’s ruling. “He is absolutely gutted about some of these allegations,” said Mr Lord.