BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Another Azerbaijan-related major corruption scandal is brewing in Europe. The country’s crooked officials have swindled billions of petrodollars for their personal benefit while the majority of the Azeri people live in abject poverty.
The latest example is on the front pages of most British newspapers. Mrs. Zamira Hajiyeva, 55, the wife of an Azerbaijani banker, has spent over $21 million by shopping at the Harrods luxury department store in London between 2006 and 2016.
The United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency alleged that stolen funds were used to buy a $15 million, five-bedroom house in the exclusive London neighborhood of Knightsbridge, 100 yards from the doors of Harrods. The house is now worth $20 million. She is also accused of spending almost $14 million to purchase a golf and country club in Ascot, The Guardian newspaper reported. Incredibly, Mrs. Hajiyeva owns two reserved parking spaces in Harrods at a cost of $500,000 a year. She was given permission to live in the UK eight years ago under a visa scheme for wealthy investors, without checking her source of funds.
“Mrs. Hajiyeva is the wife of Jahangir Hajiyev, 57, the former chairman of the state-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan. In 2016 he was sentenced to 15 years in jail for defrauding the bank out of $3 billion,” according to Rupert Neate of The Guardian.
Mrs. Hajiyeva’s lawyers in London had petitioned to keep her name, the husband’s name, their nationality and his bank a secret. However, the British court of appeal lifted the veil of secrecy at the request of the media.
The National Crime Agency stated that Mrs. Hajiyeva used 35 American Express, Mastercard, and Visa credit cards issued by her husband’s bank to fund her spending spree. On one trip to Harrods she spent $200,000 on Boucheron, a luxury jewelry, perfume and watches brand. On another trip she bought $132,000 of Cartier jewelry. She also purchased a $42 million Gulfstream G550 jet. Her wine cellar is stocked with some of the world’s most expensive bottles, The Guardian reported. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hajiyeva’s daughter from a previous marriage, who was a student in London, had shares worth $20 million paying dividends of $1.3 million a year. Mrs. Hajiyeva also has two 17 and 20 year old sons from her current husband, who were also educated in private British schools.
Mrs. Hajiyeva’s husband gave her $1.3 million to invest in British government bonds, and received $26,000 monthly expense allowance. However, after her husband’s arrest, she fled Azerbaijan and began selling her family’s silver at Christie’s auction house.
The Azerbaijani authorities are interested in questioning Mrs. Hajiyeva in connection with her husband’s banking case, accusing her and other family members of serving as conduits for Mr. Hajiyev’s scheme to take money out of the country.
Mrs. Hajiyeva is the first person in the UK’s new anti-corruption law — “Unexplained Wealth Order” — designed to target suspected corrupt foreign officials who have potentially laundered stolen money. Justice Supperstone demanded that she explain the source of the funds for her lavish purchases. If she is unable to do so, her properties could be seized. The Judge agreed that “this evidence is significant in the light of the reports of Mr. Hajiyev’s trial allegations made against him included abuse of his position at the Bank by issuing credit cards in the names of family members, through which large debts were run up against the Bank.”
Mr. Jahangir Hajiyev, as chairman of the IBA bank between 2001 and 2008, had an official salary of $71,000 a year. However, Werner Capital, which manages property investment for wealthy people, produced a report in 2011 disclosing that Mr. Hajiyev was worth $73 million, The Guardian reported. The prosecutor, Jonathan Hall, who represented the National Crime Agency, announced: “As a state employee between 1993 and 2015, it is very unlikely that such a position would have generated sufficient income to fund the acquisition of the property.”
In court, Mrs. Hajiyeva stated that she had no knowledge of the source of funds for her purchases, claiming that her husband was responsible for the payments. She described Mr. Hajiyev as “a man of substantial means.” She has hired a team of highly paid British lawyers to defend her in court.
For the time being Mrs. Hajiyeva’s expensive London mansion and the golf and country club remain frozen and cannot be sold.
It remains to be seen if the British government would seize Mrs. Hajiyeva’s properties in London. There are many more such cases which will come before the courts in the coming months, exposing the widespread corruption of Azeri officials who have stolen billions of dollars from their country’s oil wealth, investing them for their personal benefit in many countries around the world!