The small energy-rich South Caucasus nation of Azerbaijan remains a constant amongst the countries of the former Soviet Union in that it is remains a part of the world where state corruption and a crippling lack of rule-of-law and human rights dominate. In a country where most of the population lives well below the poverty line, the ruling Aliyev family is unabashed in its love of extravagant public displays of wealth, which they have accumulated since Azerbaijan become an independent state in 1991.
The major public works projects and attempts to brand Azerbaijan as a “Dubai of the Caucasus”, that is open for business and welcoming to outside investors, has allowed the Aliyevs – who have been in a position of power since before the Soviet collapse more than two-and-a-half decades ago – to gain an air of respectability with influential Western partners, while also maintaining close relations with Russia and its billions of Euros worth of high-tech arms sales.
These relationships have, however, masked the vast illicit financial empire that remains in the hands of the Aliyevs and those elites in Azeri society who are closely allied to them. Their level of wealth and the questionable ways that each came into their millions remains an open question and one that no one in Azerbaijan attempts to conceal when members of the crooked Aliyev family or their associates are abroad.
This was most recently on display when Zamira Hajiyeva, the 55-year-old wife of the former chairman of Azerbaijan’s largest bank, spent more than £16 million (€18.2 million) at London’s famed department store Harrods. Her voracious shopping habits triggered an investigation by Britain’s authorities who are looking into suspected corruption cases.
The UK’s National Crime Agency claims Hajiyeva used illicit funds to finance several property investments in the UK.
According to Reuters, Hajiyeva’s anonymity order was lifted after she lost an appeal against an attempt by the authorities to seize two properties worth about £22 million using an Unexplained Wealth Order.
Hajiyeva’s husband Jahangir Hajiyev, who was chairman of state-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan from 2001 to 2015, was convicted by an Azeri court in 2016 of fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to 15 years in jail for stealing almost $3 billion from the bank. He has been ordered to pay back $39 million. Hajiyev denies any wrongdoing and his lawyers say that he is a victim who has fallen out running afoul with Azerbaijan’s corrupt ruling family, BBC reported.
Last week, Judge Michael Supperstone rejected Hajiyeva’s appeal against the UWO although her lawyers said they would take the case to London’s Court of Appeals. Supperstone also ruled that Hajiyeva’s name, which previously could not be disclosed, could be made public on October 10.
The case has caused a renewed interest from UK authorities, who want into runaway corruption in Azerbaijan and luxury UK properties thought to be connected to Azerbaijan’s first family, noting that the list of Azeris who are known to have controlled expensive properties in London includes the country’s first family, headed by longtime President Ilham Aliyev and the First lady, who its also Vice President, Mehriban Aliyeva.
A joint report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and RFE/RL’s Azeri Service issued in May 2016 showed that the Aliyevs, including son Heydar and daughters Leyla and Arzu, owned some $140 million worth of real estate around the world, including approximately $59 million in three luxury properties in London.
Hajiyeva spent £16.3 million ($21.3 million) under a loyalty card scheme at Harrods between 2006 and 2016, using 35 credit cards issued to her by the IBA. An earlier court hearing heard how she splashed out £150,000 pounds on jewelry in a day. However, letters from the bank showed Hajiyev’s net income from IBA was just $29,062 in 2001, rising to $70,648 in 2008, according to Reuters.
“The NCA [National Crime Agency] fully supports an open and transparent justice system that helps demonstrate our determination to ensure that the UK is not seen as a soft target for the investment of illicit finance. Where we cannot determine a legitimate source for the funds used to purchase assets and prime property it is absolutely right that we ask probing questions to uncover their origin,” said Donald Toon, the NCA’s head of economic crime, according to the Guardian.
Hajiyeva has lived in Knightsbridge for more than a decade during which time she has spent more than £16 million in the Harrods department store. Her five-bedroom house is worth £15 million and she also bought the Mill Ride golf and country club in Ascot for £10.5 million.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Toon said if the agency won their case the would used the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to apply to the courts to seize a number of her properties. Asked who would then have a right to claim that wealth, Toon said: “Ultimately, that becomes a political and international issue…In the first instance, the value of those assets would come into the UK Government, and then there is a direct engagement between the originating country of the money and the UK about the extent of repatriation.”
What’s paramount in this situation is that if, eventually, the property is confiscated, Ilham Aliyev’s emasculated government may claim the value of the assets.
Hajiyev had worked for Azerbaijan’s state-owned bank and so that country’s government would be able to claim a right to claw back any funds that had been fraudulently used by Hajiyeva, which they believe were obtained by her husband from their bank.