Yesterday one of the UK’s leading broadsheet papers, The Sunday Telegraph, published an investigation which – for us at least – has a depressingly familiar ring to it.
Once more, London property is at the centre of a story that raises concerns about possible money laundering.
This time, Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the former president of Uzbekistan – once dubbed a ‘robber baron’ by US diplomats - has been linked by The Sunday Telegraph to £17m purchase of prime London property.
Over the years,
multiple media reports have shown that Gulnara is a colourful character. In her
heyday, she enjoyed diplomatic postings, owned a jewellery business, hosted
fashion shows, and embarked on a singing career under the stage name
‘GooGoosha’. She even recorded tuneful duets with Julio Iglesias and Gerard Depardieu.
But there was a dark side behind the glamour. Gulnara is reportedly at the centre of an $850m bribery scandal. The U.S. Department of Justice has embarked on one of the largest civil forfeiture actions on record in an attempt to seize the Uzbek criminal assets.
The Uzbek Prosecutor General claims that Gulnara and her associates owned a villa in Switzerland, a chateau in France, and apartments in Moscow, Hong Kong, and London. And now The Sunday Telegraph’s story suggests she is connected to British boltholes in Mayfair and Belgravia.
Whilst it remains to be proved, this certainly looks like stories we’ve seen time and again.
The pattern goes like this: public official receives bribe from a western company, money gets stashed in an anonymous company registered in somewhere that provides secrecy, like Delaware or the British Virgin Islands, anonymous company buys luxury property in London, and – bingo! – public official and their family enjoys safe haven in a luxury bolt-hole while their fellow countrymen and women live in misery.
And now, Gulnara Karimova is thought to be the latest entry on a long roll call of public officials who have been linked to the purchase of luxury homes here in the UK.
The story is so familiar – the path so well-trodden – that ignorance is no longer a credible defence, least of all for the UK government.
“But hang on a minute, you’re not being fair!” I hear you cry. “The UK government has already dealt with this…”
Well, you’d be right – they did announce a crackdown on dirty money – they even promised to introduce a register of the real owners of property in the UK, making it impossible to hide their identities behind anonymous companies.
But we are now two years on and the promised property register is nowhere to be seen.
Despite making the commitment again in front of over 40 governments at the International Anti-Corruption Summit last year, and in the face of widespread domestic support for making the UK property market more transparent, the government seems to have lost its nerve.
As a world leader on fighting corruption they are looking less reliable by the day.
On Wednesday, the House of Lords will be debating the need for a property register.
Our message to them? It’s past time the government fulfilled its commitment to clean up London. No more excuses.