Van Hoogstraten hired 'dangerous thugs' to kill business rival, judge rules

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Property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten was held responsible in a civil court for the killing of a former business rival, two years after the criminal courts cleared him of any involvement in the crime.

In an extraordinary ruling, a High Court judge said he had found compelling evidence that van Hoogstraten had arranged the murder of Mohammed Raja who was shot and stabbed by two assassins in 1999.

Mr Justice Lightman ruled that Mr van Hoogstraten "recruited two highly dangerous thugs" to murder Mohammed Raja in order to halt a legal action Mr Raja was bringing against him. "Nothing less than murder would rid Mr van Hoogstraten of this thorn in his flesh," he said.

The finding is a central to a £6m civil action being brought against the property tycoon by the dead man's family. Mr Raja, 62, had begun legal proceedings against Mr van Hoogstraten after the Brighton-based tycoon had allegedly reneged on a £600,000 business deal. The family argued that Mr van Hoogstraten should not be allowed to defend the civil proceedings because he solicited or caused Mr Raja's death.

Mr Raja was stabbed and shot after answering the doorbell at his home in Sutton, south London, on 2 July 1999. His killers, Robert Knapp and David Croke, are serving life for the murder.

Mr van Hoogstraten, 59, was accused of recruiting the men to carry out the murder. He was found guilty of manslaughter at the Old Bailey in 2002 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but his conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal. After Mr Raja's death his widow later sued for "loss of dependency" and his two grandsons, who witnessed the killing, began personal injury claims for post traumatic stress.

Yesterday the judge, hearing all the claims together, ordered Mr van Hoogstraten to pay the Raja family £500,000 interim costs within 14 days. In applying for the costs order, 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."

Mr van Hoogstraten was not in court to contest the case.

Giving judgment yesterday after 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."

The judge added: "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 magnate 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.

Although Mr Justice Lightman's civil judgment was reached on the balance of probabilities, a lower standard of proof than in a criminal court, the judge made it clear that his findings were "indeed, if it were necessary, beyond reasonable doubt".

The judge said Mr van Hoogstraten, in arranging the murder, was attempting to avoid Mr Raja's court action. "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."

After the 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." The family solicitor Patricia Hare said that, in light of the trenchant judgment, against Mr van Hoogstraten, the family would now apply to amend the claim against him to include "aggravated and exemplary damages."

Tycoon's history of crime

* 1968

Van Hoogstraten sentenced to four years jail after hiring others to firebomb the home of a business associate, a Jewish synagogue clergyman, who he claimed owed him money. Judge in that trial described the young property dealer as a self-styled 'emissary of Beelzebub'.

* July 2002

Sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for manslaughter of former business associate Mohammed Raja, who had been shot and stabbed in 1999.

* February 2003

Granted leave to appeal his conviction.

* July 2003

Court of Appeal overturns conviction on the ground that the judge had misdirected the jury.

* 19 December 19 2005

Mohammed Raja's family win a preliminary ruling that van Hoogstraten was responsible for Mr Raja's murder.