Investigators probe £80m London properties linked to 'politically exposed person involved in serious crime'

National Crime Agency uses new Unexplained Wealth Orders for second ever time

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 29 May 2019 00:46
The properties (not pictured) may have been bought using the proceeds of corruption or crime
The properties (not pictured) may have been bought using the proceeds of corruption or crime

Three London properties worth more than £80m are being investigated over allegations that a “politically exposed person” bought them with dirty money.

It is the second case using new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs), which allow authorities to look into illicit finance flowing into the UK.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) said the orders were obtained at the High Court for three residential properties in “prime locations”. All were held by offshore companies.

The agency said it was investigating “London property linked to a politically exposed person believed to be involved in serious crime”.

Investigators are looking into the funds used to purchase them and have been granted freezing orders meaning the properties cannot be sold or transferred while the probe continues.

The NCA said it could not yet reveal the identity of the suspect or offshore companies.

Andy Lewis, the body’s head of asset denial, said: “This is the second time the NCA has successfully secured UWOs since the new legislation was enacted. They are a powerful tool in being able to investigate illicit finance flowing into the UK and discourage it happening in the first place.

“The individuals behind these offshore companies now have to explain how the three properties were obtained. The NCA will not shy away from complex and detailed investigations against high-profile individuals and professional enablers.”

Graeme Biggar, director of the National Economic Crime Centre said the purchase of premium property in London was a known money laundering tactic allowing criminals to hide illicit gains.

“We will use all the powers available to us to target those who try to do this,” he added. Our aim is to prevent misuse of the UK’s financial structures which undermines the integrity of the UK’s economy and institutions.”

UWOs came into force last year as part of powers dubbed McMafia laws, after the BBC TV drama series on international organised crime and factual book that inspired it.

They force subjects to explain the source of their wealth and give the NCA power to seize assets if they can’t.

The term “politically exposed person” refers to someone from outside the European Economic Are, who is in a position of power that makes them liable to bribery or corruption, or those with suspected links to serious or organised crime.

The first case of its kind, in February 2018, saw the orders obtained against London properties worth £22m belonging to jailed Azerbaijani banker Jahangir Hajiyev and his wife, Zamira Hajiyeva.

Ms Hajiyeva came to the attention of the NCA because of her credit card spending and effective control of a Knightsbridge house, now worth £15m, the High Court heard.

It emerged that she had spent £16m at Harrods, £600,000 in one day and £30,000 on chocolates in a single afternoon.

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Lawyers for the NCA said that her husband was a state employee between 1993 and 2015 and would not have had a large enough legitimate salary to fund their lifestyle.

The couple used offshore companies to buy property including a Knightsbridge home and golf club in Berkshire.

Hajiyev was the chairman of the state-controlled International Bank of Azerbaijan (IBA) from 2001 until his resignation in 2015 and was subsequently sentenced to 15 years for fraud and embezzlement.

The scale of Ms Hajiyeva’s spending could be laid bare for the first time this week after a tranche of court documents were released to the media.

She was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK in 2015, after gaining a controversial “tier 1 investor visa”, but is now facing extradition to Azerbaijan over allegations of embezzlement.