‘You Don’t Kill a Story by Killing a Journalist’
Three years ago today, Corinne Vella received a call that would forever change her family, her life, and even her homeland, the small Mediterranean island of Malta.
When Eldar Mahmudov fell out of favor with Azerbaijan’s government, he fell hard.
In October 2015, the country’s national security minister was dismissed from his powerful role by a presidential order. Within days, wild stories peppered local media outlets about raids on his villa, where police discovered glass jars full of diamonds and cardboard boxes stuffed with foreign currency. His ministry associates were reportedly arrested on various charges linked to corruption and extortion, and a statue honoring his late father — a famous economist — was unceremoniously demolished.
The lack of transparency in the tightly controlled country makes it difficult to verify the allegations or the reporting. But one thing is clear: by the time Mahmudov left government, his family possessed a sizable fortune, most of it obtained during his decades in public office.
A leak of bank documents reveals one mode of moving that family fortune from Azerbaijan to Europe: his children. Reporters from OCCRP and Finance Uncovered scoured terabytes of data, along with public company and property records, to piece together a picture of his family’s business and property empire in the UK, Spain, Luxembourg, Lithuania, and Cyprus. All together, reporters found, it is worth over 100 million euros.
In November 2019, a group of self-described “transparency activists,” Distributed Denial of Secrets, published two caches of customer data from Cayman National Bank (Isle of Man) Limited, a subsidiary of Cayman National Corporation Ltd. based in the British Crown dependency of the Isle of Man, between England and Ireland. The bank — referred to throughout the story as Cayman National— confirmed it had been hacked, and a known hacker named Phineas Fisher claimed responsibility.
Because Cayman National specializes in private wealth management and operates in an offshore jurisdiction, OCCRP decided to make the now publicly available data searchable on its Aleph database, allowing professional journalists to identify stories in the public interest.
The hacked data included virtual computer images from a variety of systems operated by the bank, including those designed for customer management, databases, email servers, and anti-money laundering compliance reviews of customers and transactions.
Almost all of the properties and companies are owned by Eldar Mahmudov’s 36-year-old son, Anar Mahmudov, and 31-year-old daughter, Nargiz Mahmudova. The two siblings began their careers as investors and real-estate moguls in their early 20s.
In response to reporters’ inquiries, Anar Mahmudov and Nargiz Mahmudova said through a lawyer that their family wealth is inherited from an ancestor, the 19th-century entrepreneur Aslan Ashurov.
Although the Mahmudov children do appear to be the great-great-grandchildren of Ashurov on their mother’s side, reporters could not find evidence of family wealth prior to Eldar Mahmudov’s career as a public official, which began in 1980.
It is unclear from historical evidence what happened to Ashurov’s money, but it would have been very unusual for a large personal fortune to be handed down unscathed after the Bolshevik takeover of Azerbaijan in 1920 and seven subsequent decades of Soviet communism.
In a follow-up letter, the Mahmudovs’ lawyer again said that “it is widely known that our clients are beneficiaries of inherited wealth accumulated by their family over very many years,” and that the links are established in a 2014 book about the family.
However, this story contradicts the explanation of wealth Anar Mahmudov provided to Cayman National Bank in 2014, which identified companies started by his aunt in the 1990s as the source of his money.
The leaked bank documents and public records offer a rare glimpse into the Mahmudov family’s wealth, some of which they used to score golden visas allowing them to travel in Europe’s Schengen Zone.
Definitively verifying the sources of the family’s wealth is almost impossible given both the opacity of Azerbaijan’s financial reporting systems, even for public officials, and the contradictory accounts of the source of Mahmudov’s money.
Hannah Holden was doing a routine compliance review at Cayman National in August 2015 when she discovered among a batch of flagged accounts a “standard risk” corporate client that actually wasn’t. One related account had already been flagged because an unexpected amount of money flowed through it.
“I’m reading at the moment on Britannia Group Limited’s file that the people who I believe at this stage to be the ultimate beneficial owners of this group of companies are the children of a PEP,” she wrote in a work email, using the industry acronym for “politically exposed person.”
The company’s official co-owner was 26-year-old Nargiz Mahmudova, whose father, Eldar Mahmudov, was at the time Azerbaijan’s National Security Minister. Her initial source of funds was explained as “personal savings.” Her address was listed as an apartment on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
A year later, Cayman National Compliance Manager Audrey Butterworth drafted a detailed internal memo about Coldharbour Marine Holdings, a company co-owned by Britannia Group Limited, and its “connected entities,” Britannia Consulting and Britannia Investment. In fact, there were eight companies linked to the Mahmudov family banking at Cayman National.
“I have serious concerns about this a/c [account] and overall relationship without even looking at the transactions,” Butterworth wrote in closing.
The following month, the bank filed a disclosure with the Financial Intelligence Unit in the Isle of Man regarding the relationship, citing the territory’s Proceeds of Crime Act 2008. A report filed to financial regulators is not evidence of wrongdoing, but it does demonstrate that Cayman National had serious concerns about its clients.
The report cited a letter from Anar Mahmudov’s UK attorney, saying the accounts were really a vehicle for his client to set up a discretionary trust for which his sister would be the settlor.
“We believe that Anar Mahmudov is actually the UBO [Ultimate Beneficial Owner],” concluded the bank.
Between October 2014 and July 2015, the bank noted, Anar made deposits worth 13.95 million British pounds into Britannia Group Limited’s accounts. The deposits were explained as "discounted loan notes” — with him being both the noteholder and the suspected beneficial owner. Nearly identical amounts were then transferred out to related companies and investments.
Cayman National raised concerns internally, noting that the same reference numbers seem to have been used on numerous loan notes. “I don’t understand the rationale for the loan notes and the subsequent payment,” said a compliance review note on a Britannia Group transaction file.
Anar’s plan, according to his attorney, was to invest in companies and businesses and purchase property in the UK. His source of wealth was attributed to Crystal Holdings, a group of companies in Azerbaijan working in “construction, cleaning, food and beverage,” gifted to Anar by his aunt in 2006.
By the time of Cayman National’s latest review, Eldar Mahmudov had been dismissed from his government position. Anar’s father-in-law, Jahangir Hajiyev — the former head of the International Bank of Azerbaijan — had been charged with embezzlement. The negative press reports, along with other red flags, prompted the bank to shut down the accounts.
The process of closing them uncovered still more causes for concern at the bank. The companies were administered by a firm called Northern Wychwood Limited. A Cayman National compliance officer noted that Northern Wychwood “appear to have been named in a few court cases themselves and linked to high profile investigations in Zimbabwe, following the Panama Papers leaks.”
In response to an inquiry from reporters, Cayman National said it does not comment on the affairs of individual clients, but stated that it “is committed to maintaining the highest standards of conduct. It is conscious at all times of its responsibilities with regard to money laundering, KYC [Know Your Customer] checks as well as its obligations with regard to politically connected individuals, and has always cooperated fully with the authorities in relation to suspicious transactions or criminal or regulatory investigations.”
Northern Wychwood Limited did not respond to a request for comment.
Two office blocks in Poole and Bournemouth, on England’s southern coast, might be the least glamorous properties in the Mahmudovs’ British real-estate portfolio — even if UK land records show they were valued at 13.5 million British pounds.
They were bought by a UK company called Brit Holdings Limited in 2016. Documents show the sole shareholder of Brit Holdings is Britannia Investments Limited, a company registered in St. Kitts and Nevis to Nargiz Mahmudova at the time. Obscuring the people behind the properties were an army of professional service providers from Cyprus and the Isle of Man.
Anar Mahmudov also holds the title deed to a four-story London townhouse in Knightsbridge, one of the city’s priciest boroughs. The property — which features a gym, spa, cinema, and elevator — was purchased in 2013 for 17.35 million British pounds. At the time Anar was 29 years old.
Until mid-2018, he was also part-owner of 8-10 Dover Street, a holding company that owns the trendy London restaurant and bar MNKY HSE, which offers its upscale clientele contemporary Latin American cuisine and “an edgy and sophisticated spirit.” In its last financial statement, the company reported 6.3 million British pounds in fixed assets in 2018.
That year, Anar’s shares in 8-10 Dover Street were transferred to an attorney, Michail Skordis, who also appears on documents of a Cyprus company with Mahmudov. The change took place the same month that the UK’s National Crime Agency was defending in court their first Unexplained Wealth Order against Anar’s mother-in-law, Zamira Hajiyeva.
Hajiyeva lived in a house worth 11.5 million pounds near the luxury department store Harrods, where she reportedly spent more than 16 million pounds over 10 years, nearly 6 million of that using credit cards issued by Azerbaijan’s state bank. Its chairman, her husband Jahangir Hajiyev, was jailed for embezzlement in 2015. After exhausting her challenges to the order, Hajiiyeva must now explain the source of her wealth or risk the seizure of her assets.
The Mamudovs used their Isle of Man discretionary trust to sink millions into obscure companies:
● In 2014, Salvare IP Limited was incorporated in Cyprus with Nargiz Mahmudova as the beneficial owner. The following month, Salvare Worldwide Limited was incorporated in the UK by Anar Mahmudov’s lawyer. Salvare Worldwide, owned by Salvare IP, was ostensibly making inflatable life rafts. The company acquired an industrial unit in rural Hampshire in August 2014 for 735,000 British pounds with a loan from Lloyds Bank. The company, whose website is no longer active, received 715,348 British pounds between October 2014 and May 2016 from Britannia Group.
● In 2015, Anar Mahmudov made deposits into Britannia Group Limited that were used to purchase shares worth 5.56 million British pounds in iHOD Limited, a UK tech start-up that makes portable hydrogen-powered charged and fuel cells. The bank made a note on the transactions: "I have looked at the annual return and financial statements of iHOD. I cannot reconcile the payment versus the number of shares being purchased."
Anar Mahmudov first appeared on the Spanish radar in May 2006, when the then-22-year-old incorporated Majorca Capas Group Investment, the first of a handful of companies he would open in Spain.
Over the next nine years Anar, both personally and through those companies, bought dozens of properties on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, including land plots, luxury apartments, offices, parking and storage spaces, shops, and a hotel.
In late 2014, Anar consolidated many of the Spanish properties under one company, Macent Invest Group, of which he is the beneficial owner. The assets owned by Majorca Capas, his first Spanish company, were absorbed as well.
The Spanish registry doesn’t disclose the values of properties sold or purchased, but Macent Invest Group reported almost 33 million euros in assets in its most recent financial filing.
Dolunay SL, a company that is 50 percent owned by Macent Invest Group, is currently selling a stunning 17th-century farmhouse estate that sits on 127 hectares of land in the Calvià municipality for 15 million euros.
Anar is not the only Mahmudov to park big money in Mallorca real estate. His sister Nargiz owns one of the art nouveau-style Can Casasayas and Pensión Menorquina buildings in the island’s capital Palma. The two ornate structures are classified as cultural monuments and architectural landmarks. The building was purchased in Nargiz’s name in September 2013 for 4.1 million euros, according to a document seeking permission to sell a building of cultural interest.
In 2013 an artist living in Mallorca was asked by a woman named Khuraman Mahmudova to illustrate a children's fairy tale. She gave OCCRP this account of what followed when she accepted the assignment. She requested anonymity to protect her privacy.
The artist had never heard of her new client, the elder daughter of Eldar Mahmudov, but she took up the woman’s proposal that she travel to Azerbaijan to learn more about the setting for the storybook. The author wanted the illustrator to produce drawings showing the fantastical adventures of four children, modeled after the now-grown Mahmudov siblings and a cousin.
In Baku, the illustrator said she was whisked off nearly every day to private tours of landmarks and museums, and often had tea or took walks with Khuraman, always surrounded by bodyguards. She visited Khuraman’s grandparents’ house, where she and her siblings spent their summers as children.
The illustrator returned to Mallorca armed with information and photographs of her characters, and began painting. The next time she saw Khuraman was on the island where, her client told her, the family took “compulsory vacations” each year.
The book launch in Baku in March 2015 was nothing short of spectacular, with a theatrical presentation of the entire fairy tale to an audience peppered with foreign diplomats. It was followed by a banquet in a building with marble floors where Eldar Mahmudov made a speech praising the book to his guests, powerful Azerbaijani officials and their glamorous wives.
After these displays of wealth, the artist was shocked to receive a fee far below industry standard as compensation for the months spent painting each page of the book by hand. Khuraman told her the money came out of her own pocket and she couldn't pay more. Last year, Khuraman asked the illustrator to work on another book — an offer she refused.
Anar Mahmudov is also the owner of a few older investments on the island, though his involvement could only be confirmed as of 2016. He is the beneficial owner of a Luxembourg company called Hotel & Resort Investment, which owns a Spanish company by the same name. Since 2001, the Spanish company has owned a building — home to an upscale hotel — near the Palma port and marina, and since 2003 a parking garage nearby. It reported 4.1 million euros in assets in 2018.
Anar Mahmudov is the beneficial owner of four companies in Luxembourg, a financial center that runs on foreign cash. Besides Hotel & Resort Investment SRL, which was opened in 2001, the others — KONOCO.M, UTILICOM, and GRAVITYLUX — were all incorporated in 2015, before Eldar Mahmudov’s dismissal. The four companies have combined assets of 14.7 million euros.
Farhad Rahimov, an Azerbaijani national with French residence, has appeared as director in all of Muhmudov’s Luxembourg companies. He also regularly appears in the company network of Anar’s jailed father-in-law, the former head of Azerbaijan’s state bank, Jahangir Hajiyev. Rahimov signed documents in 2013 on behalf of Berkeley Business Limited, refinancing a US$42.5 million private jet. In 2015, he was also the sole director of MRGC 2013 Ltd, the company used to purchase one of the Hajiyev properties now being targeted by the UK’s Unexplained Wealth Order. “I was brought in to restructure [the deal] but it coincided with the time when the issues started with the family and that’s why I left shortly after,” Rahimov told reporters in an email.
Rahimov said he worked with the Hajiyev and Mahmudov families through a Luxembourg company called Fortrust Global. “I was only a nominee director in these entities for a very short period of time and resigned straight away once these families started to have issues back in Azerbaijan,” he wrote. “My involvement was very brief and carried barely any responsibilities,” he said, adding that he did consult for the Hajiyev family “on a number of deals as an independent consultant or through my company.”
Hajiyev has been convicted in the embezzlement of more than $4 billion from the International Bank of Azerbaijan.
Following the financial trail, reporters discovered that the Mahmudov family also expanded into Lithuania, where they acquired two companies that soon amassed impressive wealth.
In 2016, Anar Mahmudov, his sister Khuraman, and their business partner Hamid Abbasov became the owners of UAB Barkas LT, a small Lithuanian company that up to that point had no significant assets.
At the end of 2015, Barkas LT recorded net sales of 24,000 euros and assets worth 48,890 euros. In February 2017, the new owners changed the company’s articles of association, adding new business activities including real-estate construction, development, and intermediary services such as brokering.
By the end of 2017, the company had more than 722,000 euros in assets, mostly tangible assets worth 413,223 euros, although Lithuanian business registry filings don’t give any more details.
In 2018, the value of Barkas LT’s assets grew yet more, to 1.17 million euros. Its financial records cite data from the previous year that don’t match the figures from the 2017 report. The company now said it worked in a completely different business, supplying water, heating, and air conditioning. Public records show Barkas LT also has a license for the wholesale sale of alcohol.
In just two years it amassed assets worth more than a million euros, yet its net sales for 2017 and 2018 added up to some 60,000 euros.
The Mahmudovs invested in another Lithuanian company, White Cat, also doing wonders for its assets. After acquiring White Cat in mid-2017, Nargiz Mahmudova and her mother, Tahira Mahmudova, rewrote the articles of association, adding “consulting in real estate business” as the company’s primary activity.
By the end of the year, the company already had assets worth 576,554 euros — 26 times more than what it reported in 2016. In last year’s annual report, White Cat declared assets worth 536,033 euros.
In the paperwork for their local companies, the three Mahmudov siblings and their mother all claim to reside in Lithuania. All list the same 64 square-meter flat in a residential block on the outskirts of the capital Vilnius. Official data values the flat, built in 2002, at 73,500 euros.
OCCRP reached out to the current owner of the flat, a young Lithuanian woman who bought the apartment in 2018 and asked not to be named to protect her privacy. She said she had never met anyone from the Mahmudov family in person, but confirmed she knew at least three of them were officially listed as residing in the flat. She said she has now annulled those records, though reporters could not confirm that.
Lithuania’s Migration Department confirmed to OCCRP that Anar Mahmudov, his mother, and two sisters were all issued “golden visas,” a type of residency permit that has drawn scrutiny as an easy gateway to the European Union’s Schengen Zone. The Migration Department states that in order to apply for a residential permit on business grounds, a foreigner must invest at least 14,000 euros into a Lithuanian company’s share capital.
The family’s investment scheme began about eight months after Eldar Mahmudov’s fall from grace in Azerbaijan, and the visas were issued in 2017. The Lithuanian government said those visas have since been cancelled. Anar Mahmudov’s and Khuraman Mahmudova’s residential permits expired in 2019 and the two did not move to extend them, the department said. In the case of Tahira Mahmudova and Nargiz Mahmudova, their residential permits were cancelled by the Migration Department in 2018 because the mother and daughter violated Lithuanian administrative regulations, according to the authorities. The department did not indicate the precise nature of the violation, only stating that residential permits can be revoked for providing false data on residency or business activities, or in the case of risk of illegal migration.
Indre Korsakoviene, the Lithuanian director of both Barkas LT and White Cat, refused to comment about the two companies she manages.
Rory Fordyce, the owner of UK-based law firm Taylor Fordyce, sent a formal letter of introduction for a client to a tax advisor in December 2013 with the subject: Mr Anar Eldar Mahmudov - New Trust. The tax advisor, UK-based Lawfords Consulting, brought their new client to Cayman National, as they’d done with a number of others.
Anar Mahmudov needed a discretionary trust, “to invest in companies and businesses and purchase property in the UK,” but it would be in the name of his sister, Nargiz Mahmudova’s, Fordyce’s letter detailed.
Attached to the letter was Anar’s story of how he obtained his wealth, titled “Early History” and printed on stationary emblazoned with “Crystal Holding” in cursive across the top.
“Business itself started from the January 10 year 1998 on the family meeting where discussions were made about [the] booming economy of Azerbaijan and [the] decision was [taken] to start investing in oil infrastructure,” the narrative says.
The family took out a bank loan to start Caspian Petrol, an oil reseller and later a chain of petrol stations, the story claims. Then Elmira Mahmudova — the sister of Eldar Mahmudov, who had been referenced in the media as an official with Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry — also made investments in construction, food, beverages, and the Caspian Crystal group of restaurants.
In 2006, the story goes, the avid investor transferred the companies to her nephew, Anar Mahmudov, who became their “one and only owner.” That year, Anar was attending business school in Switzerland, while his father’s official salary was about 1,350 euros per month.
The personal wealth story goes on to say that the young entrepreneur embarked on restructuring and rebranding the businesses in 2006.
His most lucrative project was importing luxury vehicles, including Land Rover, Jaguar, Maserati and Ducati, according to the letter. In 2013, he launched Crystal Holding to consolidate his many companies spanning industries including satellite services, parking, restaurant catering, construction, printing, and petrol.
“From the information above we can understand that the formation of Crystal Group took 10 years to become one of the keen players in [the] Azerbaijan market and the group is ready to invest in any international company which will justify its investments,” the story ends.
However, a lawyer for Anar Mahmudov and Nargiz Mahmudova gave a different account of the origin of their wealth in response to inquiries from reporters.
The lawyer said that Anar and his sister inherited money that was “accumulated by their family over very many years, which can be traced back to their entrepreneurial ancestor, Aslan Ashurov, in the 19th Century.”
The siblings’ “assets and business interests are properly registered and declared in accordance with legal and regulatory requirements,” the attorney added .
Today a number of companies in Azerbaijan can be linked to Mahmudov, some actually created as early as 1992, according to Crystal Group’s own presentation materials. The materials provide an estimated turnover of $65.9 million for some of Mahmudov’s main companies in 2012, including Caspian Crystal, Caspian Petrol, and Indigo publishing. It also lists $56.1 million in estimated costs for two of Mahmudov’s companies that year, A.I.F. Car Parking and Crystal Construction.
The presentation claims that all the 10 automatic car parks to be constructed by A.I.F. in 2013 are government orders, and that Crystal Construction contracts include government buildings.
It’s difficult to verify the company’s claims, since it doesn’t file financial statements and very little public procurement information is available in Azerbaijan.
In a follow up letter weeks later, Mahmudov’s attorney provided more details, some referencing questions from the Crystal Holding 2013 presentation. “The percentage of total group turnover derived from government contracts is less than 20 percent, nearer 10 percent,” he claimed. The bank cited this point as one of the reasons for reporting their client to the government, noting that the account funds may have come from government funds.
Fordyce also confirmed that Anar’s father-in-law was indeed Jahangir Hajiyev, then-chairman of the International Bank of Azerbaijan. There was no mention of Anar’s father, the National Security Minister, Eldar Mahmudov.
Fordyce told reporters that he knew of the father’s official positions, and that over the years he worked with Lawfords to put together “a very thorough documented source of funds statement, with asset title documents in support” of Anar Mahmudov’s business dealings. Fordyce declined to comment further on his client, and Lawfords Consulting did not respond to a request for comment.
The accounts with Cayman National were opened in March 2014 and closed in July 2016 – the leaked documents a short window with rare details into the family’s wealth, and their narrative.
In February this year, someone using Anar Mahmudov’s full name posted a question on the official website of Azerbaijan’s tax authority.
“I, Mahmudov Anar Eldar oglu, a citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan, have been living abroad permanently since 2015 and are engaged in entrepreneurial (business) activities in the country where I live. … I have not visited Azerbaijan since the beginning of 2015,” said the poster.
“Question: Considering that I have been a permanent resident of a foreign country since 2015, I am a citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan and I have never been a citizen of any other state, am I a tax resident or a tax non-resident of the Republic of Azerbaijan? Thank you in advance.”
The tax authorities replied, concluding that Anar was no longer a resident for their purposes.
Where he and his family do reside today remains unclear.
Finance Uncovered, Diario de Mallorca, and Transparency International-UK contributed reporting.
UPDATED: This story was updated to indicate that the children of Eldar Mahmudov appear to be descended from Aslan Ashurov on their mother’s side.