Penthouse pirates - By: DAVID ROSE

The address could not be swankier. Avenfield House lies in the heart of Mayfair, near the top of Park Lane, with a view of Hyde Park.

It is just the kind of property that Russian oligarchs have pounced upon in recent years.

But while it is owned by a family of foreign plutocrats with powerful political connections, they are no Putin cronies.

For Avenfield is where Pakistan’s super-rich former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has lived when in London since 1993, knocking four luxury flats together to make a single mansion, now worth at least £7 million.

He shares it with his sons, Hassan and Hussain, his daughter and political heir-apparent Maryam and her husband Muhammad Safdar.

For the past four months, all five of them have been on trial in Pakistan accused of money-laundering.

The Avenfield flats, the prosecutors say, were bought with dirty money. They form just a fraction of a London property empire owned by Sharif’s family.

And prosecutors believe the money used to bankroll it was dishonestly acquired by Nawaz Sharif during his three terms as prime minister.

Last year, when Sharif was still PM, the courts barred him from holding public office for the rest of his life, on grounds he failed to declare a salary from a Dubai company when he last ran for office in 2013.

The first of three money-laundering verdicts, which relates to the Avenfield flats, is expected this week.

If found guilty, the family’s assets will be confiscated and they face huge fines and jail sentences of up to 14 years.

Sharif and his family deny any wrongdoing, and none has yet been convicted of any offence. Their supporters claim the charges against them are politically motivated.

The family are also accused of using dirty money to buy at least 21 UK properties on top of the Avenfield flats, most at equally grand Central London locations, in Mayfair, Chelsea and Belgravia.

The total value of the properties is estimated at at least £32 million.

The family has made huge profits from other sites which have not figured in court – such as the swankiest address of all, at One Hyde Park Place, which Nawaz Sharif’s son Hassan sold for £43 million.

Untangling the web of the Sharifs’ British real estate portfolio is not easy. The properties are registered via a bewildering network of companies, trusts and bank accounts.

According to the prosecutors, the Sharifs have for years moved their money in and out of Britain, Switzerland, the Middle East and the British Virgin Islands – to conceal its dishonest provenance.

It is not illegal to own property through an offshore company.

However, under Pakistan’s national accountability laws – first enacted in 1997 when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister – it is down to the Sharifs to prove their assets were acquired legitimately.

This, the prosecutors claim, they have failed to do. In court last week, Nawaz’s Sharif’s defence counsel claimed the prosecution had failed to establish his client was the beneficial owner of the flats or that he ran the offshore companies.

He said his name did not appear on documents submitted by the prosecutors and that he did not need to call any evidence for the defence because the prosecution had not proved its case.

At the heart of the cases against the family is a ten-volume dossier, which is part of the formal court record.

The work of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) from six Pakistani law enforcement and intelligence agencies, it is based on hundreds of documents and interviews with the Sharifs and their associates.

As well as claiming that their assets exceed their demonstrable legal income, it also cites nine separate ongoing corruption investigations into Nawaz, in which he is alleged to have ‘misused his authority’ as PM and derived personal benefits.

The defence has challenged its contents, claiming the JIT went beyond its remit with its analysis and conclusions.

Sharif’s two sons, Hassan and Hussain, fled Pakistan just as the charges against them were being drawn up last year, and have taken refuge in London.

There is no extradition treaty between Britain and Pakistan.

Next month, Pakistan will hold a general election. Sharif’s influence over his party, the Pakistan Muslim League, is still enormous, and if he is convicted of any of the charges, this will give an enormous boost to his main rival, the former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan – who campaigned for Pakistan’s courts to order the investigation into the Sharifs.

Interviewed by the MoS at his hilltop estate near Islamabad, Khan said: ‘This case has raised the awareness of corruption in Pakistan to unprecedented levels. Before, people used to accept it. It was part of the colonial mindset. Not any more.

‘But you in Britain have to play your part. Corruption and money laundering that transfers wealth from poor countries to rich causes poverty and death.

‘We have massive unemployment, 25 million children out of school and one of the highest child mortality rates in the world. I guess money laundering is making it more expensive for Londoners to buy houses. For us, the consequences are unethical, immoral, disastrous.’

Khan has been raising the issue of the Avenfield flats since 1998, just after he first entered politics: ‘I did a protest then outside those flats, saying these belong to Nawaz Sharif, and they were money laundered.

'He always denied ownership – but when he went to London he lived there. There would be meetings in the flats. Everyone knew.’

Khan’s chance came with the Panama Papers, millions of confidential documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca in April 2016.

They revealed the Sharif family had assets worth millions in Britain and many other countries – including the Avenfield flats – together with details of some of their financial network.

Khan fought successfully to persuade the Pakistan Supreme Court to open an inquiry and it, in turn, appointed the JIT.

When the court received its dossier last summer, it referred the case for trial.

In a series of statements to the Supreme Court and the JIT, the Sharifs have claimed that many of their properties – not only their London real estate, but other assets including a Saudi steelworks – were ultimately derived from a single original source: the sale, in 1980, of a 25 per cent stake in a Dubai steelworks once owned by Nawaz Sharif’s grandfather, Mian Sharif. They claim he sold this stake for about £1.2 million.

Then, they say, Mian Sharif entrusted this sum to his nephew, Mian Shafi.

Shafi gave it in cash to a now deceased Qatari prince, who agreed to invest in a company owned by the royal family. The prince made no written record of this because, Nawaz Sharif told the investigators, his grandfather ‘did not believe in documentation’.

The prince’s son wrote two letters to the court saying the story was true but provided no supporting documents.

According to the JIT, the Sharifs’ claim that they acquired so many valuable assets from their investment in Qatar was ‘false and concocted’.

If it is true, then their stake must have multiplied many times. The Sharifs say it was the prince who bought a controlling share of two BVI companies, which he then used to buy the Avenfield flats in the 1990s – although as BVI law then allowed, his involvement was secret.

But in 2006, the BVI government made secret company ownership illegal.

The JIT report says it then emerged in BVI documents that members of the Sharif family owned these firms.

It claims they had done so all along, citing other documents from 1999. The Sharifs deny this. Most of the real estate empire was managed by Nawaz’s son Hassan who, the dossier claims, moved money between different UK and offshore companies ‘to camouflage the real origin of funds’.

Yet while his firms were being used to buy luxury property, their accounts were also showing vast losses.

The dossier says: ‘It is beyond our comprehension how any person can manage to acquire such a huge empire comprising of such expensive properties when the business itself has minimal equity and has continuously been incurring losses.’

All the Sharifs, the dossier goes on to claim, added hugely to their wealth during periods when Nawaz was prime minister.

There was, it alleges, a ‘significant disparity’ between the family’s wealth and any known legitimate means they had of acquiring it, ‘which leads to the presumption this empire was not based on legal monetary sources.’

As the four-month trial has unfolded, the Sharifs have not called any witnesses, nor produced fresh documents. In essence, the court’s job will be simple: has the prosecution proven the defendants own the flats and other properties and, if so, does it consider the claims in the JIT dossier are reliable?

Nawaz and his family members on trial were all in London last week, having been given permission by the court to visit his wife, Kulsoom, who is seriously ill in hospital.

Interviewed in Islamabad, Nawaz’s spokesman, former information minister Maryam Aurangzeb, said the case amounted to ‘the defamation of a three times prime minister, the defamation of the country’.

This is not just a tale of dirty politics and allegedly dirtier money in a foreign land. Money laundering has a devastating impact on the UK capital.

‘The flow of dirty money into the property market contributes to the wider issues of empty homes, and the distortion of developer priorities away from affordable housing and towards luxury properties,’ says Rachel Davies Teka, of global anti-corruption group Transparency International.

‘We have identified UK property worth £4.4 billion that has been bought by those representing a high money laundering risk. This is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.’

However, when it comes to the Sharif inquiry, Britain seems to be doing little about it, although it has committed to stemming the flow of dirty money and has declared it will do all it can to assist overseas investigators.

In January, ‘Unexplained Wealth Orders’ came into force, a new legal tool to seize illegitimate assets.

Security Minister Ben Wallace boasted they would be used ‘against everyone from a local drug trafficker to an international oligarch or overseas criminal’ promising that the days of Britain being a safe haven for dirty money were over.

Yet the Pakistani investigators who assembled the case against the Sharifs told the MoS that far from being co-operative, Britain has provided almost no help.

Indeed, a senior official from one of the Pakistani agencies which played a central role in the Sharif investigation, said that Britain has, in effect, hindered their investigations by refusing to share information. ‘We knew about bank transfers from Britain to Pakistan, and we asked for access to the Sharifs’ British account records – but they refused.’

A second source who worked on the case added: ‘We spoke from Islamabad to officers at Scotland Yard, and they sounded very eager to help. But when it came to handing over information, it didn’t happen.’

He said Britain even sat for weeks on visa requests by members of the investigation team who wanted to visit London and the BVI for further inquiries, so that by the time the visas were granted, it was too late – because of a rigid deadline set by the Pakistani judges.

He said: ‘We felt it was a political decision. Nawaz’s party was still in power and the British government didn’t want to jeopardise its relationship with Pakistan.’

Asked whether Britain had failed to help the investigators, a Home Office spokesman said: ‘We continue to work closely with international partners to stem the flow of illicit wealth. We neither confirm nor deny the existence of mutual legal assistance requests.’

Nawaz’s son Hussain declined to respond to the MoS.

Posted on Jun 25, 18 | 8:46 am