They are the British-Iranian family behind what has been called the “world’s biggest bribe scandal”.
Para 17 años, Cyrus Ahsani and his brother Saman Ahsani worked as fixers for multinationals such as Rolls-Royce, bribing officials in Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya and Syria.
Now the Guardian has seen leaked documents that suggest how proceeds made from the family’s firm, Unaoil, were laundered through an intricate chain of offshore companies that secretly helped fund the acquisition of a string of UK properties.
los Papeles Pandora, a huge leak of confidential offshore records shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with the Guardian and other media partners around the world, contains a cache of documents that appears to show how at least £7.5m of Unaoil proceeds were funnelled via offshore companies into investment funds and blended with funds from outside investors.
It appears that this money was then invested on the advice of a separate Ahsani business in London to acquire seemingly unremarkable – and often unscrutinised – assets, including a multiplex cinema in Sunderland, a Humberside business park and an office block in Slough.
The portfolio was worth in excess of £200m, according to the Guardian’s analysis of public documents.
The revelations – that millions of pounds of British real estate is tainted by money made at the heart of one of corporate history’s largest proven bribery scandals – will only add to existing concerns that the UK’s property market is being used by white-collar criminals and kleptocrats to stash fortunes made in corrupt states.
En diciembre, la Home Office and Treasury said the money laundering risk in the UK property sector had increased from medium to high since 2017, advertencia: “Commercial property, particularly office and retail space, remains attractive [to money launderers].” They added: “The complex, opaque company structures used by overseas entities are less likely to raise suspicion in the commercial sector compared with the residential market.”
The disclosures are also likely to raise questions for the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). The agency has not launched legal action to confiscate the money accumulated by the Ahsanis, even though the family was the focus of one of its most high-profile criminal investigations.
Five years ago, journalists at Australia’s Fairfax Media exposed Unaoil’s corrupt schemes in what they called the “world’s biggest bribe scandal". They uncovered how multinational companies had for years hired Unaoil, the Ahsanis’ Monaco-based firm, to pay bribes to help secure large contracts in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
The fallout from the exposure included both Cyrus and Saman Ahsani pleading guilty in the US during 2019 to facilitating the payment of bribes between 1999 y 2016 to officials in Africa and the Middle East, laundering money in order to conceal the bribes and causing the destruction of evidence to obstruct investigators.
They are due to be sentenced in a Texas court in December. Además, three multinationals have paid penalties in the US for their involvement in the bribery.
In the UK courts, the SFO has successfully prosecuted four Unaoil employees, who have been jailed.
sin embargo, anti-corruption campaigners are now questioning why Ata Ahsani, the 81-year-old head of the family, has not been prosecuted or charged with any offence in any country. They point out that the SFO has prosecuted junior Unaoil employees but not the family patriarch, who was the founder and chair of Unaoil.
En los EE.UU, Ata Ahsani has reached an agreement with the US Department of Justice (DoJ) that he will not be prosecuted. Lawyers for the Ahsanis do not dispute this, although it is unclear what the terms of this agreement are.
Tom Martin led the SFO’s investigation into Unaoil between 2016 y 2018. An employment tribunal ruled this year that he was unfairly sacked by the SFO. He told the tribunal that Ata Ahsani struck the deal with the DoJ on the basis that he paid $2m (£1.47m) to the US authorities.
Jim Sturman, a barrister for one of the junior Unaoil employees who was convicted of corruption, alleged in court last year that “remarkably Ata Ahsani seems to have been allowed to buy his way out of any prosecution by paying a financial sum to the US authorities as an alternative to prosecution”.
Ata Ahsani’s lawyers said it was fanciful and intentionally misleading to suggest that “one can (simplemente) pay any sum of money to receive a non-prosecution agreement”.
At the tribunal, Martin also said the Ahsanis had amassed $200m from Unaoil’s corrupt schemes and had at one stage wanted to cut a deal with SFO in exchange for not giving up this fortune.
Lawyers for the Ahsanis said this figure was inaccurate and an inflated assertion by Martin, who had never been able to substantiate it. They added that UK criminal law did not allow the cutting of deals. They said it was wrong to suggest that all of Unaoil’s business was illegitimate, adding that prosecutors in the UK and the US had not found that all profits generated by Unaoil had been derived from bribery.
Susan Hawley, the executive director of the campaign group Spotlight on Corruption, dicho: “Why are junior employees carrying the can for egregious corrupt activity, by going to jail, while the person who ran the business and is likely to have profited most from Unaoil’s corrupt behaviour gets to walk away paying a minor fine? This sends a terrible message that senior executives are not a priority for prosecutors which seriously undermines the fight against corruption.”
Ahora, for the first time, documents reveal how the Ahsani family invested some of its Unaoil proceeds.
A joint investigation between the Guardian and BBC File on Four has examined documents leaked from an offshore services provider that administered some of the Ahsani offshore empire, and which state three separate British Virgin Islands-based companies, all beneficially owned by Ata Ahsani, invested the money into two property funds called Lumina Real Estate Capital “special situations” funds.
The papers also record that the source of Ata’s investment was “earnings of Mr [Ata] Ahsani by Unaoil Group”.
A fourth BVI company, which the leaked records state sold £600,000-worth of property, is recorded as being funded from “earnings of Mr Ahsani Saman by Unaoil Group”.
A fifth BVI company, beneficially owned by Ata Ahsani but not linked to Lumina in the leaked papers, is recorded as holding €6.5m (£5.6m) of “office spaces” assets – which were again identified as funds from “earnings of Mr Ahsani by Unaoil Group”.
Lawyers for the Ahsanis said that only about 5% of the two Lumina funds was financed by Ata Ahsani.