Cleared Hoogstraten ruled responsible for murder

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Property baron Nicholas van Hoogstraten was held responsible by the High Court today for the murder of a business rival - despite being cleared in the criminal courts.

Mr Justice Lightman ruled that Mr van Hoogstraten "recruited two highly dangerous thugs" to murder Mohammed Raja in order to halt a civil action Mr Raja was bringing against him.

"Nothing less than murder would rid Mr van Hoogstraten of this thorn in his flesh," said the judge.

The finding is central to a £6 million civil action being brought against the property tycoon by the dead man's family.

Mr Raja, 62, was in the process of suing Mr van Hoogstraten over a business deal at the time of his death. He was stabbed and shot after answering the doorbell at his home in Sutton, south London, on July 2 1999.

His killers, Robert Knapp and David Croke - who were, according to today's judgment, Mr van Hoogstraten's henchmen - are serving life for murder.

Mr van Hoogstraten, 60, was sentenced to 10 years at the Old Bailey in 2002 for manslaughter, but his conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal.

He was not in court or represented during the civil proceedings. He is believed to have gone to Zimbabwe, where he has business interests, having told Mr Justice Lightman's clerk after an earlier hearing that he was leaving the country and would not be back until next year.

Giving judgment today following a six-day hearing in London last month, Mr Justice Lightman said: "I am satisfied that the recruitment of the two thugs was for the purpose of murdering Mr Raja and not merely frightening or hurting him.

"The use of two violent thugs armed with a shotgun was more than was needed to frighten or injure him. The second shot was deliberately aimed at killing him.

"Mr Raja had at all times shown himself resilient, ready to resist threats and to complain to the police.

"Nothing less than murder would rid Mr van Hoogstraten of this thorn in his flesh."

The property tycoon later boasted about the murder "and threatened a repeat if aggravated in the future", said the judge.

He clearly recruited the thugs to "break" the thorn and resolve for good his problems with Mr Raja.

The judge said he reached his conclusion "on the balance of probabilities" - the civil law standard of proof - "and indeed, if it were necessary, beyond reasonable doubt" - the criminal law standard.

Mr van Hoogstraten, in arranging the murder, was attempting to obtain the release or settlement of Mr Raja's court action against him on terms highly favourable to Mr van Hoogstraten.

"The evidence pointing to this conclusion is overwhelming," the judge said.

"Only by presenting compelling evidence to the contrary could Mr van Hoogstraten have had any real prospect of persuading the court to decide otherwise. Perhaps wisely, he did not even attempt to do so.

"His purpose in murdering Mr Raja has not been achieved because, contrary to his expectations, Mr Raja's family have been as resilient as was Mr Raja in his lifetime in standing up to Mr van Hoogstraten."

The judge ordered Mr van Hoogstraten to pay £500,000 interim costs on an "indemnity" basis - the highest scale of costs and often regarded as punitive - within 14 days.

In applying for indemnity costs, Peter Irvin, for the Raja family, had told the judge: "Your judgment shows Mr van Hoogstraten to be a cowardly and murderous thug who will stop at nothing to preserve his miser's hoard."

The lawsuit against Mr van Hoogstraten returns to court for a procedural hearing on January 11. The judge aims to conclude the entire case by the end of February.

After today's hearing, the Raja family said in a statement: "Naturally, we are very pleased with the court's findings, but it has been a devastating and uphill struggle to get here."