Azerbaijani banker's wife says £15m Knightsbridge home bought legitimately

Zamira Hajiyeva (PA)
Zamira Hajiyeva (PA)

A banker’s wife who splashed out £16 million at Harrods has told the High Court how she moved to London after being kidnapped and held in a tiny hole underground for weeks as part of an attempt to stop her Knightsbridge home being seized as the proceeds of crime.

Zamira Hajiyeva is accused by the National Crime Agency of buying her £15 million Walton Street home and a multi-million pound golf club in Berkshire with a fortune plundered by her husband Jahangir from the state bank in Azerbaijan.

He has since been jailed in Baku for his crimes and the agency, which has already used so-called “McMafia laws” to serve Mrs Hajiyeva with Britain’s first Unexplained Wealth Order, is now trying to strip her of both properties on the grounds that they were acquired with illicit money.

But in a statement to a new High Court hearing, Mrs Hajiyeva repeated earlier denials of wrongdoing and insisted that her “extremely dynamic” husband had funded her home and the golf club out of legitimate wealth first generated during the “Wild West” conditions that existed in Azerbaijan at the time.

She also gave details of her own background, saying that she was a languages graduate who had taught Russian literature and language, before a “terrifying” kidnap in 2005, which she said had involved death threats and “scarred me for life”, prompted her to move to London for safety.

She said the incident began as she was “grabbed from behind as I approached my car” and bundled by three men into a waiting car with a driver as she tried to kick out to defend herself.

“They pushed me to the floor of the car and put a bag or something over my head. They also put handcuffs on me before driving off,” Mrs Hajiyeva told the High Court.

“I could not see, but I could hear. After a while, we stopped, and I was transferred from one car to another. They placed me in the back of the second vehicle, with ‘the bag’ still over my head.

“They pushed something against my head, which felt like a gun and told me to just sit and not move. I was terrified, I did not know who these people were or where I was going, and I did not know if I would see my husband and children again.

“I was taken to a place outside Baku, I was put in a ‘room’ which was in fact a 1.5 metre by 1.5 metre hole in the ground under the basement of a building. It was so small I could neither stand up straight nor lie down. I spent 28 days in that hole.

“The door was permanently locked, and I was spoken to through a hatch in the door. There was no toilet, only a basin, a bucket and a cold- water pipe, like a hose, with a small hole in the ground for evacuating waste.

“My captors would give me food once a day through the hatch.. A light was on 24 hours a day, except when they opened the hatch.. so I could not see their faces.

“There was loud music playing the entire time.. which felt like I was being tortured. I soon lost complete track of time and did not know what day of the week it was, or even whether it was day or night.

“While I was being held, my captors attempted to extort money from my husband, and I was told that if he did not cooperate, I would be killed.”

Mrs Hajiyeva said her ordeal was ended by an armed operation by Azerbaijan’s national security ministry in which one of her captors was killed outside where she was being held.

She added that she believed that “some of those who were responsible for my abduction remain in senior positions in Azerbaijan” and that her kidnapping had “proved to be the start of what I believe were a series of attempts at extortion of my husband”.

She claimed this had culminated with what she alleged was the politically motivated wrongful conviction of her husband for defrauding the International Bank of Azerbaijan, where he had worked as chairman for many years.

“I believe that my husband was the victim of a political drive to remove him from his position and seize his assets,” Mrs Hajiyeva said in her High Court statement. “He was an honest businessman and banker who had a long-standing reputation and was widely recognised for having led the International Bank of Azerbaijan professionally and to great success.”

On her husband’s business activities, Mrs Hajiyeva said that although she had not questioned the source of his wealth when the couple met in the 1990s or discussed his later banking career, Mr Hajiyev was a “successful entrepreneur” who had used his business acumen to make money from importing household goods and other items when communist era restrictions disappeared.

“There was a boom in trade followed the fall of communism in eastern Europe and this was exactly the type of business (import / export) that anyone with a bit of cash could enter at the time,” Mrs Hajiyeva said in her court statement.

“There was a huge flow of western household appliances coming into former Soviet countries like Azerbaijan, my husband had studied for his MBA in the United States, and he obviously saw the potential for trade in modern household goods and electronics, in addition to commodities such as spirits and flour.

“This was the early to mid-1990s in Azerbaijan. It was a bit of ‘Wild West’ and some people who had access to Western know-how and business training were able to make a lot of money.”

Mrs Hajiyeva added that her husband had also had a “road construction business in Azerbaijan” and a “cotton production operation in Uzbekistan” and that the absence of documentation about his “entrepreneurial activities” reflected the “reality of life in Azerbaijan” in an era when “there was not the same requirement to keep records, or the same ability to keep electronic documents.”

“He was in my eyes a successful entrepreneur who loved me and had a great future ahead of him,” Mrs Hajiyeva said as she described the early years of the couple’s romance which resulted in their marriage in 1997.

“At no stage did anyone question or challenge the fact that he was wealthy. Nor did any-one think it was inconsistent with his employment [as a banker] given his wider business interests.”

Mrs Hajiyeva’s statement to the High Court was revealed during a case management hearing ahead of a scheduled trial next year to determine whether her home and the Mill Ride golf club in Berkshire should be handed over to the NCA as the proceeds of crime.

The agency’s barrister, Jonathan Hall KC, told the court that Mrs Hajiyeva was withholding information about the source of the money used to buy her home and the golf club.

He also accused her of trying to delay proceedings by asking the court for more time for her lawyers to be able to seek access to Mr Hajiyev in his Baku prison cell to obtain his explanation about the purchases.

But the judge, Mr Justice Saini, agreed to grant a short extension to the deadline for Mrs Hajiyeva to submit her evidence about the source of the funds to the court, while warning that if she failed to submit her case by that time then she would be barred from doing so at all.

The case was adjourned. Separate forfeiture proceedings at Westminster Magistrates’ Court over Mrs Hajiyeva’s lavish jewellery collection have also still to be completed.

The action against Mrs Hajiyeva follow the NCA’s decision in 2018 to issue her with Britain’s first Unexplained Wealth Order under new powers dubbed “McMafia law” introduced to target illicit wealth.

She has denied wrongdoing throughout and continues to live in her Walton Street home in Knightsbridge. None of her assets have been seized so far despite the litigation against her costing vast sums believed to total several millions of pounds.