Banker’s wife part of organized crime group, government tells U.K. court
The wife of a jailed Azeri banker, the target of the U.K.’s first unexplained wealth order, spent almost 16 million pounds ($20.4 million) across Europe, including at Harrods and luxury boutiques, on 10 credit cards issued illegally by her husband’s bank.
Zamira Hajiyeva, who was unmasked last year as part of a British crackdown on foreigners linked to overseas corruption, is fighting extradition to Azerbaijan in a London court. As a member of “an organized criminal group,” the 55-year-old splashed funds on hotels and the Harrods department store, a lawyer for the government said Monday.
“The conduct in this country would amount to either money laundering the proceeds of that fraud, or she is the beneficiary of the fraud, she is complicit in that fraud," Helen Malcolm, the lawyer representing the Azerbaijani government, said at the extradition hearing.
Hajiyeva’s husband, Jahangir Hajiyev, the former head of International Bank of Azerbaijan, is serving a 15-year prison sentence for abuse of his office. His annual earnings as a state employee never went beyond $70,000, Malcolm said. Meanwhile his wife, who had no income of her own, owned a pair of properties in the upmarket Knightsbridge area, she said.
Hajiyeva, who was arrested last year, won’t get a fair trial in Azerbaijan, her attorney Hugo Keith said. The former Soviet republic under President Ilham Aliyev has seen the legal profession "terrorized," he said.
Keith said the fact that she incurred bills, “however exorbitant,” on credit cards given to her by her husband didn’t mean she was complicit in his fraud.
"The allegation made against Mrs. Hajiyeva is in fact part of an abusive and politically tainted campaign directed by the corrupt and authoritarian Azeri regime against her husband," he said.
But Malcolm said the government rejected suggestions that the case was politically motivated.
"There is no suggestion that this is a political prosecution," Malcolm said. "She has, as far as we are aware, no political opinion."
Hajiyeva was a member of a group of 37 people suspected of embezzling some $97 million between 2009 and 2015, Malcolm said. As director of the bank, her husband oversaw applications for 28 fraudulent credit cards, with some in the names of his bodyguard and driver, she said.
Hajiyeva has been attempting to sell jewelry, including at the Christie’s auction house, to fund her lifestyle, Malcolm said. Under the new legislation, she was ordered to explain how the couple could afford the properties. The so-called unexplained wealth order puts the onus on asset-holders to prove that their wealth is legitimate.
Hajiyeva has been in and out of London courts for the better part of the year as the U.K. National Crime Agency sought to seize a leafy golf club outside London and a home steps away from Harrods. For several months, she was able to keep her identity secret before a judge unceremoniously dropped her anonymity order in October.
She was back in the headlines again in January when police seized a 1.2 million-pound ($1.5 million) diamond ring from a London jeweler.
In addition, police confiscated jewelry, including a Boucheron sapphire and ruby necklace and a Van Cleef & Arpels pearl necklace, while she sought to get the items appraised at Christie’s.