Secret documents showing how a London couple brought at least £14 million of allegedly corrupt money into Britain have been cleared for release by a judge in a partial court victory for the Evening Standard.
Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot said this newspaper had an “important story to tell” as she granted permission for access to court papers submitted by the National Crime Agency about the husband and wife at the centre of the “dirty money” allegations.
She said the case involved claims by law enforcers that frozen bank accounts held by the pair contain funds “derived from international corruption and…laundered through a myriad of limited companies” including in Belize, the Marshall Islands and the Seychelles.
The judge added there were “indications that the funds came in a manner described as ‘the Azerbaijani laundromat’, a method of moving money from a ruling elite to the West where property etc is bought”. But in a setback for transparency, the judge also ordered that the couple’s names be kept secret, at least until a later hearing.
She also ordered a temporary “stay” on the release of the full details of the allegations because of a pending judicial review over a separate legal issue relating to the case.
The rulings follow an application by the Standard for documents submitted to Westminster magistrates’ court by the NCA when it obtained 10 account freezing orders against a husband and wife referred to as X and Y because of the anonymity order.
Two days of hearings took place, during which the couple were represented by James Lewis QC, one of the country’s most senior barristers. He argued for access to the documents to be refused, saying because they contained unproven allegations that the couple “are money launderers and corrupt” it would be disproportionate to release them and contrary to their right to privacy.
In her judgment, however, Ms Arbuthnot said she accepted the Evening Standard newspaper has “a proper journalistic purpose in wanting to have access to the documentation” and “is concerned about the flow of ‘dirty money’ into the United Kingdom”.
She ordered access to a “redacted document” as a result and says she is doing so because the court has to balance the risks to the couple against “the open justice principle claimed by a journalist who has an important story to tell, in the public interest.” The judge says the couple’s identity should remain confidential “at this early stage in proceedings” but confirms “X is related to senior government officials in Azerbaijan”. She also states that the documents contain allegations the pair “received £13,897,280.00 from 21 corporate entities” as part of the “grounds for suspicion” in the case.