A lurid multimillion-dollar shopping spree at Harrods of London by the wife of a jailed Baku banker has prompted renewed interest in runaway corruption in Azerbaijan and luxury U.K. properties thought to be connected to Azerbaijan's first family.
The U.K's National Crime Agency (NCA) brought two so-called unexplained wealth orders (UWOs) -- part of an anticorruption drive to uncover ill-gotten foreign money invested in Britain -- against Zamira Hajiyeva (aka Haciyeva) for her ownership of a central London property and a golf course.
The NCA has announced it will soon be issuing more of the UWOs, although it did not identify the targets of those requests.
The list of Azerbaijanis known to have controlled expensive properties in London includes the country's first family, headed by longtime President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva.
A joint report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani 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.
As with Hajiyeva's properties, the Aliyevs' real estate was owned by offshore companies connected to the Aliyev family, namely Leyla and Arzu, who were also found by an OCCRP reporter to be living at one of the properties, a luxury apartment overlooking Hyde Park.
"We expect UWOs to now be used more widely to pursue more of the [$5.8 billion] worth of suspicious wealth [that Transparency International has] identified across the U.K.," Ben Cowdock, a senior research officer at Transparency International, tells RFE/RL.
"This includes taking measures against powerful elites, which have the right to immunity in their own countries, for example, as does the ruling family in Azerbaijan," he says. "We have shown them as potential candidates [for UWOs] and they appear to have millions of pounds [worth of property] in London through their secretive, phony companies."
The Azerbaijani presidential administration has not publicly commented on the existence of London properties.
The NCA said in a statement that it had considered some 140 cases in Britain in which a UWO could be warranted and said it will issue several UWOs in the coming months.
British Buying Spree
British media exploded last week with news that Hajiyeva was alleged to have used nearly three dozen credit cards to buy items worth more than $21 million in a decade of spending at one of the world's most famously upscale department stores.
The wild string of purchases by Hajiyeva -- the wife of Jahangir Hajiyev, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Azerbaijan for fraud, misappropriation of state funds, and the embezzlement of billions from Baku's treasury -- came to light during Britain's first-ever use of an UWO.
The Hajiyeva UWOs stemmed from her ownership of a central London property valued at some $15 million -- and located around the corner from favorite store Harrods -- and the Mill Ride Golf & Country Club in Berkshire that is reportedly worth about $14 million.
The couple also reportedly own a $42 million Gulfstream jet and stocked a wine cellar with some of the world's most expensive vintages, officials said in court.
"The two properties are owned by a [British Virgin Island] company and a Guernsey [Island] company [linked to Hajiyeva]," Cowdock says. "The plane is owned by a U.K. company [and]...we were able to understand that Hajiyeva owned the company that owned the plane."
Hajiyeva, 55, will have to explain where the money for the two properties came from or they could be seized by the British government in civil court. The properties are currently frozen and cannot be sold by Hajiyeva until the case is resolved.
If seized, U.K. authorities would likely have to return the underlying funds to Azerbaijan, according to the NCA head.
In court, Hajiyeva proclaimed her innocence and said that before her husband was chairman of the International Bank of Azerbaijan from 2001-15, he was a successful businessman who became quite wealthy. Hajiyev, 57, reportedly earned about $71,000 per year as bank chairman, The Guardian reported.
Hajiyeva's lawyers said the UWOs against their client do not "imply any wrongdoing, whether on her part or that of her husband."
Hajiyev's sister Emine Hajiyeva, who lives in Baku, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that the charges against her brother and his wife were "slander" and the latest court developments "nauseating."
She claims that fake documents were sent by the Azerbaijani government to British officials for the UWO to be issued. "[The Azerbaijani authorities] used Jahangir as a scapegoat from the beginning; they threw everything at him and no other person was needed [to accuse my brother and his wife]," Hajiyeva said. "Jahangir had his own business...for 15 years -- did he not have the right to buy an apartment in London?"
She added, "Let [the British] look and see who has taken out large amounts of loans, who [among the Azerbaijani elite] has villas in other countries."
Transparency International's Cowdock says journalists have already done lots of research into suspicious, foreign-owned property in Britain, including some thought to be tied to the Aliyevs.
"Offshore and anonymous ownership does make it a little bit more difficult to recover those assets," Cowdock says. "So the police would have to find different ways to verify that the owner of that property was the owner of that person who owned the offshore company."
He adds: "So that kind of work has already been done for the police that would possibly be able to be used in court. Lots of documents, like the Panama Papers, have been very useful in sort of uncovering ownership information of those properties."
Asked about possible foreign assets in the Aliyevs' hands, Yevda Abramov, a parliament member from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, told RFE/RL that there was nothing illegal about the president's children owning property.
Samad Seyidov, the head of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), also dismissed any suggestion of illicitly owned property in Britain in the hands of the Aliyev family. "We have repeatedly faced biased accusations against Azerbaijan, its authorities, and its president," Seyidov said. "These [accusations are], probably, from the same series."
Britain's NCA said in a statement that "tackling the flow of illicit finance into the U.K. is a top priority...and we are bringing all the capabilities of...law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites."
"[We] currently [have] over 750 million pounds ($992 million) of criminal assets restrained, frozen, or repatriated linked to the investigation of international corruption," it said.