The secret wealth and dealings of world leaders, politicians and billionaires has been exposed in one of the biggest leaks of financial documents, reports the BBC.
Some 35 current and former leaders and more than 300 public officials are featured in the files from offshore companies, dubbed the Pandora Papers.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his family have been accused of looting their own country, the investigation found the Aliyev’s and their close associates have secretly been involved in property deals in the UK worth more than £400 million.
The revelations could prove embarrassing for the UK government, as the Aliyev’s appear to have made a £31 million profit after selling one of their London properties to the Crown Estate – the Queen’s property empire that is managed by The Treasury and raises cash for the nation. Many of the transactions in the documents involve no legal wrongdoing.
One of their properties was sold to the Queen’s crown estate, which is now looking into how it came to pay £67 million to a company that operated as a front for the family that runs a country routinely accused of corruption. The Aliyev’s declined to comment.
But Fergus Shiel, from the ICIJ, said: “There’s never been anything on this scale and it shows the reality of what offshore companies can offer to help people hide dodgy cash or avoid tax.” He added: “They are using those offshore accounts, those offshore trusts, to buy hundreds of millions of dollars of property in other countries, and to enrich their own families, at the expense of their citizens.” Other documents show how Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family have secretly acquired UK property using offshore companies.
The files show how the family – long accused of corruption in the European nation – bought 17 properties, including a £33 million office block in London for the president’s 11-year-old son Heydar Aliyev.
The building in Mayfair was bought by a front company owned by a family friend of President Ilham in 2009. It was transferred one month later to Heydar. The Crown Estate said it carried out the checks required in law at the time of purchase but is now looking into the matter. The UK government says it is cracking down on money laundering with tougher laws and enforcement, and that it will introduce a register of offshore companies owning UK property when parliamentary time allows.
According to The Guardian, the Queen’s crown estate has launched an internal review over a £67 million London property it appears to have bought from Azerbaijan’s multimillionaire ruling family – which has repeatedly been accused of corruption.
Details of the purchase are contained in the Pandora papers, which reveal how a network of offshore companies linked to the family and associates of the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, has traded close to £400 million of UK property over the past 15 years.
The property purchases include one building acquired for £33.5 million in 2009 by an offshore company beneficially owned by President Aliyev’s son, Heydar, who was then only 11 years old.
The revelations raise questions about potential loopholes in the UK’s property registration system, and whether they prevent proper due diligence, even by a body such as the crown estate, nominally owned by the UK monarch and run by commissioners for the benefit of the nation’s finances.
A spokesperson for the estate, which manages £15 billion of property assets, said: “Before our purchase of [the building] we conducted checks including those required by UK law. At the time we did not establish any reason why the transaction should not proceed. Given the potential concerns raised, we are looking into the matter.”
Aliyev has ruled Azerbaijan since succeeding his father as president in 2003 and has presided over a country that is frequently accused of human rights abuses, rigged elections and systemic corruption.
In August 2018, the crown estate paid £66.5 million for 56-60 Conduit Street, an eight-story office and retailing property in London’s Mayfair, which it bought from a British Virgin Islands-based company called Hiniz Trade & Investment.
Hiniz had acquired the building for £35.5 million in 2009, and the Pandora papers show how the ownership of the company was passed from the president’s daughter, Arzu Aliyeva, to her grandfather Arif Pashayev, who then placed the company into a trust in 2015.
The leaked files do not show the source of the funds originally injected into Hiniz, but disclosure of the company’s shareholders – and the manner in which ownership was switched between members of Azerbaijan’s first family – raises fresh questions about whether the transaction should be investigated on money-laundering concerns.
The Pandora Papers is an investigation into millions of records leaked from 14 offshore service providers — the law firms that help anyone looking for secrecy establish secretive companies in far-flung jurisdictions. Media partners from around the world collaborated for months to analyze the data and reveal the stories of the super-rich and the powerful — including more than 30 world leaders — who appear in it. The confidential documents also feature a global cast of fugitives, convicts, celebrities, football stars and government officials.
Pandora papers reporting team: Simon Goodley, Harry Davies, Luke Harding, Juliette Garside, David Conn, David Pegg, Paul Lewis, Caelainn Barr, Rowena Mason and Pamela Duncan in London; Ben Butler and Anne Davies in Sydney; Dominic Rushe in New York; Andrew Roth in Moscow; Helena Smith in Athens; Michael Safi in Lebanon; Robert Tait in Prague.