Friday, October 30, 2020

UK court orders aviation tycoon to pay UAE $4 million over fraudulent deals

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A controversial US-Iranian aviation tycoon has been ordered to pay damages of more than $4 million over a series of plots to fleece the sovereign wealth fund of Ras Al Khaimah of millions of dollars.

A London High Court judge found that Farhad Azima, 79, bribed the fugitive former head of the fund, doctored documents and discussed a plot to undermine the emirate’s ruler Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi.

In a victory for Ras Al Khaimah, Judge Andrew Lenon found Azima falsely inflated the costs of a pilot training project and paid a $500,000 bribe over the sale of a Rakia-owned hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia. The hotel was sold to three Iranians, who were later accused of being “sanctions evaders” by the US Treasury.

“The Government of Ras Al Khaimah is continuing to recover stolen assets of the Emirate,” said a Rakia spokesperson. “It is committed to bringing to justice those who have misappropriated public funds from the Emirate and its people. This decision is another victory in this fight against fraud.”

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The court case was part of a broader battle centred on reputed losses of some $2 billion while Rakia was under the control of Khater Massaad, a Swiss Lebanese national and close associate of Azima.

During his seven years as chief executive, Massaad poured $2 billion of government funds into overseas acquisitions.

In late 2012, the fund found that he had “perpetrated systematic and wide-ranging frauds” and was responsible for losses of $2 billion, the London court heard.

Private investigators and lawyers hired by Rakia have probed alleged financial wrongdoing in ten countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe.

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He fled the emirate in 2012 and was arrested at the request of the UAE in Saudi Arabia four years later, where he is also the subject of a $120 million civil claim.

Massaad has been convicted in the UAE of five separate financial offences which each carry jail terms of between five to 32 years.

Massaad has repeatedly rejected the “trumped up charges” against him. But lawyers for Rakia claim he engaged his close friend and associate Azima to “wage war on the RAK Investment Authority” after 2012.

The London trial heard that documents were leaked on the internet that followed a hack of Azima’s personal data.

These included a security assessment drawn up by a US security firm including a plan for a smear campaign as a “last resort” to secretly involve Latin American drug cartels in the business affairs of Ras Al Khaimah. The plans, that Azima said were “naive and ill-conceived”, were never put into action.

Azima accused Rakia of being behind the hack but the judge ruled the claims were based on “speculative assumptions”.

The judge described some of Azima’s evidence as “frequently inconsistent… and inherently implausible”.

He ordered Azima to pay Rakia $4,162,500. The costs will be decided at a later hearing.

Azima said he would appeal against the ruling.

Azima, who lives in Kansas, US, is understood to have sold assets and properties to build a fighting fund to contest the claims against him in London.

The colourful Azima has been linked to the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s when US officials were found to have secretly supplied to weapons to Iran and using the proceeds to fund right-wing rebels in Nicaragua. Azima owned one of the aircraft used to ferry the weapons but denies knowledge of the operation.

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