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Court freezes 3 UK homes worth £80m to probe ownership

London

A UK court froze the ownership of three London residential properties worth £80 million (S$139.85 million) linked to a high-profile suspect, while investigators scrutinise the source of the funds used to buy the assets.

A High Court judge last week granted the National Crime Agency, the UK equivalent of the FBI in the US, so-called unexplained wealth orders (UWOs) on the properties in prime locations, the agency said on Wednesday in a statement.

The assets are held by offshore companies and connected with an official in a foreign country. UWOs, which became law a year ago, mean that the police no longer have to prove that an asset above the value of £50,000 was obtained illegally before blocking it from being liquidated.

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Instead, the onus is on the owner to show that the funds used to purchase the property were legitimate.

"The purchase of prime property in London is a tactic used to launder money and we will use all the powers available to us to target those who try to do this," said Graeme Biggar, director general of the National Economic Crime Centre, a body set up to coordinate the fight against economic crime. "Our aim is to prevent misuse of the UK's financial structures which undermines the integrity of the UK economy and institutions."

This is only the second time that UWOs have been secured. The first was in February 2018, when a judge ordered that former International Bank of Azerbaijan head Jahangir Hajiyev and his wife explain how they afforded a pair of properties worth £22 million. Both deny any wrongdoing.

Campaign group Global Witness welcomed the order, but in a statement called for the implementation of a public-property register, saying that it believes roughly £100 billion worth of property in England and Wales were bought with suspicious means. BLOOMBERG