Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE
Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

London — When UK authorities began investigating wealth belonging to a politically connected Azerbaijani family, their suspicions were triggered by a raft of “brass plate” companies that funnelled more than double the amount of the couple’s stated income. 

Almost £14m was routed into British bank accounts controlled by Suleyman Javadov, the son of a former deputy energy minister, and his wife. Among the 21 companies that moved their wealth was Rovers Production and Tourism, which chartered a private jet to fly female models to the Spanish party island of Ibiza. Another firm’s accounts were managed by an individual who appeared to be a dentist living in Belgium.

A full legal filing from the National Crime Agency (NCA) released by the London court on July 7 gives the most detailed glimpse yet of how dirty money was allegedly funnelled through the UK using a scheme known as the “Azerbaijani laundromat”, which enabled the flow of about $3bn in cash. It also laid out the role of Danske Bank’s Estonia branch and that of Latvia’s ABLV Bank in transferring money to the UK. The documents were released after the Javadov family agreed to hand over £4m to end an investigation by the NCA.

The shell companies “played no other role than to disguise and hide origins of money coming to them”, NCA lawyer Jonathan Hall told the court.

At the hearing, Hall said the NCA initially sought to seize £6.4m, but chose to settle with Suleyman Javadov and his wife Izzat Khanim Javadova, a cousin of Azerbaijan’s president, on the eve of the proceedings. The Javadovs made no admission of wrongdoing and their lawyers said in a statement that the couple “have legitimate business dealings and trusted that their money transfers were dealt with by the banks in accordance with the law”.

The couple accepted that the money was transferred through “pass-through” accounts which were part of what prosecutors have described as a laundromat, but denied knowing the money itself was laundered, said James Lewis, their lawyer.

In opting to settle the case, the NCA unwittingly highlighted some of the issues policing the UK’s “dirty money problem”, said Susan Hawley, who runs British transparency group Spotlight on Corruption. Even when pursuing civil rather than criminal procedures, with the resulting lower burden of proof, it suggests “that law enforcement bodies are struggling to bring home cases”.

The documents from the crime agency, which were prepared late in 2020 before the court hearing, were released following an application by London’s Evening Standard newspaper, which unmasked the couple following a lengthy court battle.

Baltic link

They show how the funds ended up in UK bank accounts, including at Banco Santander and private bank Coutts & Co, via hundreds of transactions from Danske Bank’s Estonia branch or ABLV Bank, once Latvia’s third-largest bank before it was shut down over money laundering concerns.

Danske Bank, Denmark’s biggest lender, is being investigated in the US and Europe for failing to screen billions of euros flowing into Europe via its Estonian branch. Investors are bracing for fines, which Bloomberg Intelligence estimates may be as high as $1bn in the US alone.

Danske Bank declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations. Coutts also declined to comment. A Santander spokesperson said the bank couldn’t comment on individual cases but said it takes its “responsibility to counter money laundering, corruption and tax evasion extremely seriously”. The bank will “report any suspect activity to law enforcement agencies and regulators”, he said.

The Javadovs received about £1.6m in six transfers from Seychelles-based Rovers Production via ABLV over a six-year period through to January 2018, the NCA said. In 2014, the firm flew a group of men and five young female models to Ibiza, the NCA said. Javadova, who worked as a DJ under the name Mikaela Jav on the Spanish island over several summer seasons, started performing gigs in 2014, according to an online database.

Rovers Production wasn’t found on the Seychelles company register and couldn’t be reached. The Javadovs had no idea who controlled the company and were not involved in the charter flight, said Sonia Ahmad, one of their lawyers.

Another firm, the now-defunct UK-based Crosspark Lines LLP, sent 48 transfers from Estonia to the Javadov family. The name of the person submitting the accounts was given as Ali Moulaye, “a name connected to a dentist living in Belgium”, the NCA said.

The couple’s lawyer said the Javadovs had no knowledge or connection with Crosspark and “could not be expected to know the route of funds arriving into their UK accounts”.

Attempts to reach Moulaye weren’t successful. When interviewed by Buzzfeed in 2018 about his role with other British shell companies, he told the news organisation he signed “many things, many times” for his friends in Latvia.

Interviewed by the NCA, Suleyman Javadov was unable to explain the role of some of the 21 companies involved in sending the funds. He told investigators “I’m just disgusted with all this”, according to the NCA court documents.

The agency said it expected the Javadovs would argue that the money was moved via an informal transfer system used frequently in the Muslim world known as hawala. The network is mainly used for legitimate purposes, but the NCA said it can also be exploited by those “who may wish to seek to layer and integrate criminal funds into an (otherwise) legitimate banking system”.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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