What are Unexplained Wealth Orders? ‘McMafia’ Laws explained.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) is making use of new legal powers to fight potential international corruption and money laundering.

Jewellery worth more than £400,000 has been seized from Christie’s auction house during an investigation into a woman who is the subject of the UK’s first Unexplained Wealth Order (uwo).

Zamira Hajiyeva was the subject of the first two uwos obtained by the NCA, against two properties worth a total of £22 million.

She went to the High Court where she unsuccessfully attempted to overturn a uwo made against an £11.5 million property in Knightsbridge, London, which was purchased in 2009 by a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands.

But last month Mr Justice Supperstone dismissed her application to discharge the uwo, as well as an anonymity order preventing the identity of her and her husband, their country of origin, the bank Jahangir Hajiyev worked for, and the two properties.

Her husband was the chairman of the state-controlled International Bank of Azerbaijan from 2001 until his resignation in 2015, and was subsequently sentenced to 15 years for fraud and embezzlement.

Lawyers for Mrs Hajiyeva said: “The decision of the High Court upholding the grant of an Unexplained Wealth Order against Zamira Hajiyeva does not and should not be taken to imply any wrongdoing, whether on her part or that of her husband.”

They said the uwo was part of an investigative process, not a criminal procedure, and did not involve the finding of any criminal offence, and they said an application to appeal against the judge’s order had been filed.

uwo’s have been called McMafia laws, after the BBC drama series, based on a factual book of the same name by journalist Misha Glenny.

The TV series followed the story of organised crime bosses including Russian oligarchs who live a life of luxury in the UK on laundered money.

A number of other cases are already in the pipeline under the new powers which came into force in January and can compel individuals to reveal the sources of their wealth.

The NCA’s director for economic crime Donald Toon believes uwos could significantly reduce the appeal of the UK as a destination for illicit money.

“They enable the UK to more effectively target the problem of money-laundering through prime real estate in London and across the UK, and we will now seek to move further cases to the High Court,” he has said.

“Where we cannot determine a legitimate source for the funds used to purchase assets and prime property it is absolutely right that we ask probing questions to uncover their origin.”

Under the new powers, the NCA may seize assets if it is believed the owner is a politically exposed person from outside the European Economic Area, or someone with suspected links to organised crime.

As more orders loom, it is believed criminal gangs are trying to move dirty money out of the UK to avoid the crackdown.

“We have indications that people are not moving money into the UK and are looking to divest themselves of assets in the UK,” Mr Toon told The Times in September.

The NCA has considered around 140 cases where a uwo order may be appropriate, and is working to apply for further orders as investigations continue.

“A significant number of these are against assets believed to be held by Russian individuals,” a spokesman said in September.