The Court of Appeal has rejected Zamira Hajiyeva’s appeal against the UK’s first Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO), meaning she must now reveal the source of her wealth. She has been forbidden from taking the case to the Supreme Court and must pay legal costs to the National Crime Agency (NCO). The NCO has the right to seize her London home if she is unable to provide evidence of her income.
A UWO application can only be brought if the respondent is a non-European Economic Area (EEA) politically-exposed person, who is reasonably suspected of being involved in serious crime. It must specify or describe the property on which the UWO is being sought as well as the person thought to hold the property. The aggregate value of the property must be greater than £50,000 and there should be reasonable grounds for ‘suspecting that the known sources of the respondent’s lawfully obtained income would have been insufficient for the purposes of enabling the respondent to obtain the property’.
Ten years ago, Mr Hajiyev applied to settle in the UK using the wealthy investor visa scheme. Mrs Hajiyeva is the wife of the state banker, who has been jailed for 15 years in his home country of Azerbaijan for defrauding his bank with the theft of millions of pounds, which his wife says in an injustice.
She spent £16 million and an average of £4,000 a day in Harrods over a ten year period, paying for jewellery and designer clothes using 54 different credit cards, most of which were issued by her husband’s own bank.
As a state employee, it was thought unlikely that Mr Hajiyev had sufficient funds to purchase property worth £22 million, which included the couple’s London house and the Mill Ride Golf Course in Berkshire.
Their total assets are estimated at over £55 million.
The property can be seized if Mrs Hajiyeva fails to provide satisfactory evidence to investigators once another judge has been asked to make a separate order. The NCA will have 60 days to act once Mrs Hajiyeva responds with her account. She has not yet been charged with a crime but if her statement is found to be misleading or false she could be charged under the Proceeds of Crime Act and imprisoned if convicted.
This is the first time an Unexplained Wealth Order has been sought in the UK and its success means the NCA and police are more likely to use the powers in the future. The UWO makes it possible for the assets of foreign criminals and their families to be pursued, to prevent them from living a luxury lifestyle in multi-million pound British homes. Several other UWOs are currently being pursued against foreign nationals with property in the UK, including suspected corrupt Russian oligarchs and former politicians from African regimes.
Transparency International UK said it had conducted research that identified billions of pounds held in around 500 properties belonging to over 150 individuals. The organisation hopes that more cases will be investigated, saying that the UK currently lacks transparency over UK property ownership.
It seems Mrs Hajiyeva would disagree, her legal representative, James Lewis QC, describing UWOs as: “the most draconian and intrusive powers available to financial investigators in the UK today – and by some margin.”