Justice and vindication for tycoon over robbery that went horribly wrong

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The Independent Online

Nicholas van Hoogstraten's short temper and ruthless business methods have earned him a fearsome reputation. In 1968, he was sentenced to four years jail and went to Wormwood Scrubs after hiring others to firebomb the home of a business associate, a Jewish synagogue clergyman, who he claimed owed him money. The judge in that trial described the young property tycoon as a self-styled "emissary of Beelzebub".

Yesterday Mr Hoogstraten's solicitor, Robert Berg, said: "Today's judgment brings to an end Nicholas van Hoogstraten's quest for justice and vindication from an accusation that was based on tenuous and circumstantial accusations."

Sir Stephen Mitchell will today formally release Mr van Hoogstraten from the charge against him at a short hearing at the Old Bailey. Mr van Hoogstraten has always maintained he was framed over the death of business associate Mohammed Sabir Raja.

The prosecution had originally alleged that Mr van Hoogstraten wanted revenge after Mr Raja began court proceedings against him alleging fraud. Last year, the Raja family won a £5m claim against him for the alleged fraud.

But Mr van Hoogstraten has appealed and a new hearing is due next March.

At his original trial, the tycoon alleged that another figure in the property world, Michaal Hamdan, was instrumental in putting him in the dock. He claimed Mr Hamdan had "harboured a serious grudge against me" ever since they fell out over control of a South coast hotel. "It was something that was eating away at him. He even tried to blame me for the death of his mother," he said.

But Mr Hamdan fled to Lebanon before he was due to give evidence at the original trial after implicating Mr van Hoogstraten in the killing of Mr Raja. He alleged the property tycoon said he wanted to get rid of two people - one was Raja.

But, after Mr Hamdan flew to Beirut, the judge ruled that his statements could not be read to the jury in his absence.

During his trial, Mr van Hoogstraten said he accepted he had a volcanic temper and had threatened to kill people. It was simply anger, he told the court, adding: "There have been no dead bodies."

Mr Raja, 62, was stabbed five times and shot in the face at close range with a sawn-off shotgun at his home in Sutton, south London, on the evening of 2 July 1999. Small-time thugs Robert Knapp and David Croke were jailed for life for the murder and were later refused permission to appeal against their convictions.

Mr van Hoogstraten denied hiring them, and his lawyer, Richard Ferguson QC, suggested at his trial last year that the killing was more like a robbery "gone horribly wrong" than a carefully planned hit by a powerful businessman.

Yesterday the Crown Prosecution Service denied that its prosecutors had made any mistakes. A spokeswoman said: "The case raised important issues of law arising from the accepted definition of manslaughter and the application of case law."

She said they had argued the case had constituted an offence of manslaughter, but the defence had argued it had not.

When he was jailed for manslaughter last year Mr van Hoogstraten was building a £40m country home on his estate in East Sussex. Earlier this year, ramblers won a 13-year battle for the right to use a public footpath across the estate. Mr van Hoogstraten had described the ramblers as "scum, riff-raff and the great unwashed" for wanting to use the footpath.

His fortune, sometimes estimated at £200m, sees him regularly featured in lists of Britain's wealthiest people. He has homes in Barbados, St Lucia, Florida, Cannes and Zimbabwe.

His private life is closely guarded but he was born in 1946 as Nicholas Marcel Hoogstraten in Shoreham, East Sussex. His grandfather was a major shareholder in the British East India Company but, by the time Nicholas was born, the family was no longer wealthy. His father worked as a shipping agent, his mother was a housewife and he had two sisters and was educated at a Jesuit school.

He left school at 16 and joined the Royal Navy. Just a year later, he sold his astutely acquired stamp collection for £1,000 and embarked on a business career, buying property in the Bahamas and then in the British housing market.

By the time he was 22, he was reputed to have become Britain's youngest millionaire. In the 1980s, as the housing market boomed, Mr van Hoogstraten acquired more than 2,000 properties. By the 1990s he had sold 90 per cent of them, making massive profits, and investing in other areas, including global mining.