McMafia order woman ‘spent £15.5m in embezzled cash on luxuries’

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Zamira Hajiyeva (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

The woman at the centre of the UK’s first so-called McMafia order spent up to £15.5 million of embezzled cash in luxury boutiques, hotels, restaurants and grand department stores across Europe, a court has heard.

Zamira Hajiyeva, 55, is also said to have bought jewellery, gold and flight tickets for herself and family members, paid school fees for her three children and splashed out on health and beauty treatments.

Last month it was revealed how she spent £16 million over a decade at Harrods.

Mrs Hajiyeva is alleged to have been a member of an “organised criminal group” of 37 people involved in embezzling 97 million US dollars (£76 million) from the International Bank of Azerbaijan (IBA) between 2009 and 2015.

Her husband, Jahangir Hajiyev, 57, was the chairman of the state-controlled bank from 2001 until his resignation in 2015 before he was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison for fraud and embezzlement.

Mrs Hajiyeva is fighting extradition to Azerbaijan at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in relation to the same allegations, claiming she is being persecuted for her political beliefs and will not get a fair trial.

Helen Malcolm QC, representing the Azerbaijani government, said on Monday 97 million dollars was obtained through 28 IBA-issued credit cards.

She told the court between £14.5 million and £15.5 million was spent on 10 credit cards issued in Mrs Hajiyeva’s name, while others were in the name of her stepdaughter and her husband’s personal bodyguard.

“Mr Hajiyev was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment and was ordered to repay 39 million dollars (30.5 million). There has been an appeal in relation to that, which was refused,” Ms Malcolm said.

“I have updated the sums of money in relation to Mrs Hajiyeva. The difficulty is, she withdrew sums, partly in Azerbaijan, both from ATMs and in cash, and partly through a number of luxury boutiques, hotels, restaurants and what are described as grand department stores, which I imagine is a reference to Harrods and others, where she spent money in US dollars, pounds and euros in different parts of Europe.”

The court heard Mr Hajiyev earned between 29,000 dollars (£23,000) and 70,000 dollars (£55,000) as a state employee. Ms Malcolm said there is no evidence of any legitimate source of wealth, while his wife is said to have no income and is selling jewellery to fund her lifestyle.

Ms Malcolm said: “The case against her is embezzlement and fraud in a conspiracy with her husband.

“The conduct in this country amounts, in our submission, to either money laundering the proceeds of that fraud, or she is the beneficiary of the fraud, (or) she is complicit in the fraud – so conspiracy to defraud or conspiracy to steal.”

Hugo Keith QC, representing Mrs Hajiyeva, said the charge against her is “bogus” and has been brought because she is “the wife of the top banker convicted in Azerbaijan”.

“We say that the charge is likely to have been brought in order to pressurise him to give up valuable assets to the state and in order to intimidate others,” he said.

“No one is allowed to escape the reach of the state. The wife of the highest profile convicted defendant in Azerbaijan cannot be allowed to cock a flagrant snook at the state.

“Living in England, she openly is sitting here, in the view of the state, living off the proceeds of the crime of which he has been convicted.”

He said the allegation of embezzlement is put “by virtue of her, admittedly exorbitant, expenditure” on the 10 credit cards, but argued there is no evidence she knew they were “improperly procured”.

“Spending money, however exorbitant, is not a criminal offence,” Mr Keith continued. “Spending that sort of money in Harrods might be an offence, but it is not a criminal offence in law.”

In separate proceedings, two Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) have been granted against Mrs Hajiyeva as a High Court judge found she spent more than £16 million in Harrods between September 2006 and June 2016.

She was targeted by the National Crime Agency (NCA) when so-called McMafia anti-corruption laws came into force last year.

UK authorities want to know how she and her husband could afford to buy an £11.5 million Knightsbridge house a few minutes’ walk from Harrods and a £10.5 million golf club in Ascot, Berkshire.

When Mrs Hajiyeva unsuccessfully attempted to overturn one of the UWOs in October, her lawyers claimed her husband’s conviction was the result of a “show trial” and that his guilt “had been determined by the presidential administration in advance”.

“The decision of the High Court upholding the grant of an Unexplained Wealth Order against Zamira Hajiyeva does not and should not be taken to imply any wrongdoing, whether on her part or that of her husband,” they said.

They also said the UWO was part of an investigative process, not a criminal procedure, and did not involve the finding of any criminal offence.

Mrs Hajiyeva has been granted permission to appeal the High Court’s decision by the Court of Appeal.

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