Westminster Magistrates’ Court, on Thursday 26 September, refused the Republic of Azerbaijan’s request to order the extradition of Zamira Hajiyeva, wife of the former chairman of the International Bank of Azerbaijan (“IBA”), and ordered her discharge. Senior District Judge Emma Arbuthnot, the Chief Magistrate, held that Mrs Hajiyeva’s extradition would be incompatible with her rights under the European Convention of Human Rights. The court said there was “a real risk” that she could suffer a “flagrant denial of justice” were she to be returned to Azerbaijan to stand trial.
The extradition request in respect of Mrs Hajiyeva relates to allegations of conspiracy to defraud and embezzlement. The Azeri government alleges that, along with her husband and others, Mrs Hajiyeva was implicated in a massive fraud involving the use of dishonestly issued credit cards, unsecured loans and cash withdrawals to steal money from the IBA. Mrs Hajiyeva’s husband was convicted before the Baku Court for Grave Crimes in October 2016 of abuse of office, embezzlement and forgery: he is currently serving a sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment.
Mrs Hajjiyeva was initially arrested on 30 October 2018 and remanded in custody. She was released on conditional bail on 8 November 2018. Earlier that year Mrs Hajiyeva became the subject of the UKs first Unexplained Wealth Order (“UWO”). Following her husband’s conviction, it came to the attention of the National Crime Agency (“NCA”) that Mrs Hajiyeva’s spending and assets were out of step with her husband’s reported legitimate earnings. The NCA applied for UWOs in respect of two London properties with a combined value of £22m.
In assessing the Azeri extradition request in the instant case, the court admitted the evidence of an anonymous Witness ‘A’ – a practicing lawyer in Azerbaijan who had appeared in the criminal courts and was able to speak about whether the reforms to the judicial system were working in practice. He gave evidence of the frequent use of politically motivated charges being used by the Azeri government to intimidate opponents and the shortcomings and lack of independence of the legal profession. The court considered this evidence in addition to reports from numerous NGOs about the independence of the judiciary and evidence of the way in which Mr Hajiyev was treated during the legal proceedings which were taken against him and concluded that Mrs Hajiyev would be at real risk of having her Article 6 rights violated were she returned for trial.
Following the handing down of the judgment, the Azeri government said it intended to appeal against the ruling to the High Court. Legal proceedings relating to the UWOs in respect of Mrs Hajiyeva’s properties remain ongoing.