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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

UK targets London properties of jailed Azeri banker

New tactic aims to seize plundered national funds within the UK’s housing market

Jailed Azerbaijan banker Jahangir Hajiyev speaking at a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2011. Bloomberg
Jailed Azerbaijan banker Jahangir Hajiyev speaking at a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2011. Bloomberg

The wife of a corrupt banker jailed in Azerbaijan for 15 years faces the loss of two properties worth £22 million in the first use of new British police tactic aimed at tackling high-level international corruption.

Jahangir Hajiyev was jailed in 2016 for fraud and embezzling the state-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan of millions of dollars but his wife, Zamira, has continued to live the high-life in London on the suspected proceeds of his crimes.

UK law enforcement used a new tactic to target two of the couple’s properties owned through a web of offshore companies – a grand double-fronted home in the heart of upmarket Knightsbridge, bought for £11.5 million in 2009, and a golf club in the wealthy suburban town of Ascot, Berkshire.

The London house is just a few hundred yards from the Harrods store where Mrs Hajiyeva spent some £16 million over a decade, including £150,000 on a single day in jewellery, according to court documents.

Her lavish spending contrasted with her husband’s official salary of $70,000 in 2008 at the bank where he was chairman from 2001 to 2015. Following his conviction at a court in Baku, he has been ordered to pay back some $39 million.

Mrs Hajiyeva and her husband were named as the first targets for the so-called unexplained wealth order (UWO) for the first time after a judge ruled against her attempts to keep her identity secret.

The tactic was introduced earlier this year following criticisms of UK efforts to tackle the tide of “dirty money” flowing through financial institutions and the City of London. It seeks to retrieve alleged illicit assets without the need for a criminal conviction.

Campaigning group Transparency International said that it has identified property worth £4.4 billion in the UK purchased from suspicious wealth.

It includes a home reputedly owned by former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the house of a former Libyan major general as ripe for targeting under the new rules.

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Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA), which is responsible for tackling international corruption, has said that £90 billion is likely to be a significant underestimate of the sums of corrupt and criminal cash flowing through Britain every year.

Britain’s network of company formation networks, legal firms and accountants are seen as key drivers of the illicit trade.

The UK was stung into action by a series of leaks that highlighted the role of shell companies set up in secret British overseas territories and former colonies in the spread of illicit cash.

“Unexplained wealth orders have the potential to significantly reduce the appeal of the UK as a destination for illicit income,” said Donald Toon, director for economic crime at the NCA.

Increased tensions with Russia, following the attempted murder of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, has also placed pressure on the UK to act against wealthy exiles suspected who have made London their home using the proceeds of plundered industries.

UK law enforcement believe some £90 billion of illicit finance washes through Britain's financial sector every year. REUTERS/  
UK law enforcement believe some £90 billion of illicit finance washes through Britain's financial sector every year. REUTERS/  

The first identification of a target for UWOs followed the announcement last week that fraud investigators were going after three properties linked to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of former Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, and her boyfriend Rustam Madumarov.

The multi-million-pound properties in the upmarket Belgravia and Mayfair districts of London are suspected of being bought with the proceeds of alleged corrupt telecoms deals in Uzbekistan.

Karimova – who was described as a “robber baron” in US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks – was known for her lavish socialite lifestyle that embraced fashion, pop music and a globe-trotting social calendar. She is currently in detention in Uzbekistan after a conviction for embezzlement.

British police first went after Mrs Hajiyeva in February but her lawyers have challenged the order, saying that her husband’s role had been misrepresented and he was the victim of an unfair trial.

The UWO is at an early stage but the new tactic means that it is up to Mrs Hajiyeva to show that she bought the properties using legitimate funds.

The failure of her attempt to throw out the case in the courts last week was hailed as a significant victory for the authorities who have vowed to expand the use of the tactic.

“The UK has been long identified as a safe haven for corrupt money and despite successive governments recognising this, money-launderers have continued to hide their ill-gotten gains here,” said Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK.