Court to rule on challenge to UK’s first ‘McMafia’ wealth order

The wife of a “fat cat international banker” is set to find out whether her challenge to the UK’s first unexplained wealth order (UWO) has been successful.

Zamira Hajiyeva, who spent more than £16 million at Harrods in a decade, is attempting to overturn a UWO obtained by the National Crime Agency (NCA) against a property in Knightsbridge, central London, which was purchased for £11.5 million in 2009 by a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands.

Her husband, Jahangir Hajiyev, was the chairman of the state-controlled International Bank of Azerbaijan from 2001 until his resignation in 2015, and was later sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for fraud and embezzlement.

Zamira Hajiyeva court case
The home of Jahangir and Zamira Hajiyeva in Walton Street, Knightsbridge, was purchased in 2009 for £11.5m (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

But Mrs Hajiyeva, 56, argues that her husband’s conviction, which she says was “the central feature” of the NCA’s application for the UWO, was the result of a “grossly unfair trial” and should be discharged.

The Court of Appeal, led by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, is due to give its ruling on Mrs Hajiyeva’s case on Wednesday.

At a hearing in London in December, Mrs Hajiyeva’s barrister James Lewis QC argued that Mr Hajiyev’s conviction was a “flagrant denial of justice”.

He submitted that “shorn of Mr Hajiyev’s conviction, it is wholly unrealistic to suggest that the NCA could have sought and obtained the UWO”.

Zamira Hajiyeva court case
Zamira Hajiyeva is challenging the UK’s first unexplained wealth order at the Court of Appeal (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Mrs Hajiyeva was the first person to be made subject to a UWO, a new power brought into force in January 2018 under so-called McMafia laws – named after the BBC organised crime drama and the book which inspired it.

A UWO allows the NCA to seize someone’s assets if they believe the owner is a politically exposed person (PEP) – someone from outside the European Economic Area in a position of power that makes them liable to bribery or corruption – and they are unable to explain the source of their wealth.

But Mr Lewis argued that Mr Hajiyev was not a PEP, and said the NCA had “seriously mischaracterised” Mr Hajiyev’s job by describing him as a “government official”.

Jonathan Hall QC, for the NCA, said Mrs Hajiyeva’s interpretation of the law was “unsustainable”, and submitted that the International Bank of Azerbaijan was a state-owned enterprise and that Mr Hajiyev was a PEP.

He added that the “fresh evidence” upon which Mrs Hajiyeva sought to rely showed she was “under investigation in Azerbaijan for fraudulently spending significant sums on air tickets, jewellery, tuition fees, beauty products, restaurants and hotels”.

Zamira Hajiyeva court case
A piece of jewellery that was among 49 items belonging to Zamira Hajiyeva seized from Christie’s in 2018 (NCA/PA)

In a High Court ruling in October 2018, dismissing Mrs Hajiyeva’s initial attempt to overturn the UWO, Mr Justice Supperstone said that “three separate loyalty cards were issued to Mrs Hajiyeva” by Harrods, where she spent more than £16 million between September 2006 and June 2016.

Court documents later released to the media revealed that Mrs Hajiyeva blew £600,000 in a single day during a decade-long spending spree.

The NCA subsequently seized jewellery worth more than £400,000 from Christie’s over suspicions about how the items were purchased while the auction house was valuing the jewellery for Mrs Hajiyeva’s daughter.

In September, Mrs Hajiyeva fought off an attempt to extradite her to Azerbaijan to face fraud and embezzlement charges on the grounds that she would not get a fair trial.

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