Trail of Venezuela’s Stolen Billions Leads to Caribbean Luxury Properties
People linked to alleged corruption in Venezuela appear to have invested millions in luxury properties in the Caribbean.
“Sadiq Khan has been building luxury homes,” says a confident-looking man, addressing the camera with just a hint of a foreign accent. “Kam will be building affordable homes.”
The nine-second video was part of 39-year-old Kam Balayev’s unlikely effort to unseat London’s popular mayor in this year’s election. Balayev had fallen in love with the city after visiting there from Azerbaijan as a student, he explained on his campaign site. Now he wanted to make it “work for all Londoners.”
His candidacy with the tiny Renew Party was not a success, earning him under 8,000 votes.
But Balayev is more than just an immigrant with a dream — and the topic of luxury London real estate is highly relevant for him and his former in-laws.
While still married, Balayev and his ex-wife bought a pricey apartment just five minutes’ walk from Hyde Park, one of the most coveted neighborhoods in the British capital. At the time, both were in their mid-20s. A few years later, they bought another one.
According to a biography of Balayev posted by a now-defunct London law firm where he consulted, he would have been a public official working for Azerbaijan’s justice ministry at the time, raising the question of how he and his young wife could afford such purchases.
Similar questions could be directed to her family.
Narmina Asadova, to whom Balayev was reportedly married for about a decade, is the younger daughter of one of the most powerful politicians in his home country of Azerbaijan, former speaker of parliament Oktay Asadov.
Now, an OCCRP investigation has found that Asadov’s wife, his elder daughter, and her husband acquired luxurious properties in London, Dubai, and Moscow. In all but one case, despite their close connection to a senior politician, they did so using their own names.
In total, the Asadovs acquired assets worth nearly $10 million over the years, though at least one property has since been sold. The provenance of this fortune raises questions, given the immediate family’s known incomes.
During his 14 years as speaker of parliament, Oktay Asadov earned an official annual salary of under $30,000. (He has also served as head of the Azerbaijan Tennis Federation, though it is unclear whether he earned a salary there. It would have been illegal for him to earn money in the private sector.)
His wife, who has worked for many years as a state kindergarten director, would have made much less than that. She now owns a large rental property in Moscow — but its profits are insufficient to explain her family’s acquisitions, and her ability to buy it in the first place only raises more questions. The family’s two daughters jointly own a private preschool. The only other businesses found to be associated with them are two defunct Turkish companies co-founded by the elder daughter’s son-in-law.
In response to requests for comment, a lawyer representing Kamran Balayev wrote that he “denies all and any allegations of wrongdoing,” describing any inferences of unlawful conduct as “absurd” and noting that he has “not been in direct contact with Mr. Asadov and his family for many years.”
Asadov, his wife, his daughters, and his other son-in-law did not respond to reporters’ inquiries.
Oktay Asadov was Azerbaijan’s longest-serving parliamentary speaker since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, serving from 2005 to 2019. He has been in parliament for even longer, first being elected in 2000 and remaining there today.
During his tenure he earned a reputation for crudeness, sometimes getting into shouting arguments with other legislators and flinging accusations of corruption at his counterparts in the European Union.
But mostly he and his family members stayed out of the public eye, even as they lived in luxury behind the walls that surrounded their Baku compound. The exclusive neighborhood has become so identified with Asadov that it is sometimes referred to as “speaker’s block.”
Two years after Asadov became speaker, his family made their first known property acquisition abroad: His wife, Zemfira Asadova, purchased a luxury apartment in Triumph Palace, a massive neo-Stalinist skyscraper in Moscow, in 2007.
It’s unknown how much she paid for the 148-square-meter unit, one of about 1,000 in the 57-story building. Similarly sized apartments in Triumph Palace are on sale today for between $1.4 and $1.7 million.
But this was not the state kindergarten director’s only acquisition in the Russian capital. The following year, she acquired a company called Arizarum Group that owns a large commercial space in the basement and ground floors of a building in southern Moscow.
The building currently hosts a supermarket and a combined sauna and beauty salon.
According to Arizarum’s financial statements, the company has earned a total profit of about $800,000 since 2013. The Russian property register lists the 2013 value of its property as $2 million, though this “cadastral value” often underestimates the real market price.
The terms of Asadova’s acquisition of Arizarum is unknown. When contacted by reporters, its previous owner said he did not remember how much he was paid for the company.
Narmina and Nigar, the two daughters of Oktay Asadov, are not known to have large sources of income. The two sisters founded a private kindergarten in Baku, and Nigar works as a doctor at a state maternity hospital.
In a rulebook printed by the U.S. Women’s Tennis Association, Nigar is listed as the director of the 2012 Baku Cup, a women’s tennis tournament that was held for four years in the Baku Tennis Academy.
The enormous facility, which opened to much fanfare with President Ilham Aliyev in attendance, had been built by the Azerbaijan Tennis Federation — of which Nigar’s father, former speaker Asadov, is president. In response to reporters’ questions, a representative of the economic ministry said that the construction of the academy was privately funded, but the exact sources are not disclosed. The academy director is Asadov’s nephew, Bagir Askeralizade.
Some sport federations in Azerbaijan are controlled by state officials but funded with private money. Some also receive government support.
The wife of President Ilham Aliyev is head of the Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation, the Minister of Emergency Situations runs the Azerbaijan Boxing Federation, and the governor of the central bank is also the president of the Azerbaijan Chess Federation.
Asadov, the former speaker, has led the Azerbaijan Tennis Federation since 2004. Like the other sports organizations operated by state officials, the federation is not required to disclose its finances.
“There is no transparency in this sector,” said Zohrab Ismayil, an Azerbaijani economist. “And of course, in general it’s unknown where this money comes from and where it goes. It raises a lot of doubts.”
The costs of the construction of the Baku Tennis Academy between 2008 and 2011 is unknown. The Ministry of Economy told OCCRP that no state money funded the construction. But the opening ceremonies were attended by President Aliyev.
Neither the tennis academy nor the federation replied to requests for comment or financial information.
According to leaked data Land records in Dubai are not public, forcing reporters to resort to alternative sources of information to report on properties in the Emirate. The data is current as of January 2020. provided to OCCRP by the research organization C4ADS, Nigar Asadova acquired a two-bedroom apartment in the Al Bateen Residences in Dubai sometime between 2016 and 2018. The development is advertised as a “stunning 50-storey residential tower” and boasts direct access to the beach, an outdoor swimming pool, 24-hour security, and other amenities.
Nigar’s husband, Mehman Gojayev, also bought property in Dubai. According to the same leak, he owned a three-bedroom villa in the elite Jumeirah Park neighborhood. He bought it for $740,000 sometime between 2014 and 2016.
He also purchased office space on two floors of a 39-floor commercial building, the HDS Tower JLT, which is a 10-minute drive from his Jumeirah Park villa. The amount he paid is unknown, but according to a leading local real estate website, offices there cost between $136,000 and $300,000 and can be rented for between $8,000 and $60,900 per year.
Gojayev also acquired property in London in 2009, purchasing a $1.2 million three-bedroom apartment in the prestigious Regent’s Park neighborhood not far from his in-laws.
Until last year, Gojayev was one of two deputy prosecutors of the city of Baku.
Azerbaijan’s anti-corruption law prohibits state officials from engaging in any business, directly or indirectly, even on a part-time basis.
Gojayev co-owned two Turkish companies with two prominent Turkish families, one registered as a metals trader and the other as a construction company. He was also the director of one of the companies.
Neither company appears in any web searches, and the extent of their activity is unknown. It is unclear whether his ownership of these companies would violate the anti-corruption law, though the law does explicitly prohibit “entering an executive body” of a company.
The two companies were dissolved in 2017 and 2018, and neither Gojayev nor his former business partners responded to requests for comment.
All but one of the Asadov family properties described in this story were held in their own names. The single exception was the second London apartment purchased by the younger sister, Narmina, and her former husband, aspiring mayor Kamran Balayev.
On paper, the property at Porchester Terrace was held by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands called NNM Investment, which the couple owned jointly.
This information appears in a set of emails between the couple’s lawyers and representatives of Alcogal, the Panamanian law firm that set up NNM.
Despite her father’s prominence, Asadova and Balayev checked the “no” box on a question asking whether they were “politically exposed persons” A “politically exposed person” is a person who has been entrusted with a prominent public function, such as a member of parliament, an ambassador, or a judge, or their immediate family member. in the due diligence questionnaire they filled out several weeks after they became shareholders in the BVI company.
Though they owned NNM jointly, only Narmina had been appointed as a director. But according to an email Alcogal received in July 2012, it now seemed that Balayev wanted to ensure he wouldn’t lose control.
“Would you please appoint Mr Kamran Balayev a director,” his representative wrote. “He is a fifty percent shareholder of the company.”
Normally, such a request would be accompanied by a resolution from a company’s current director. But none was forthcoming.
Two weeks later, Balayev tried again. This time, a letter was submitted in his own name: “I would like to change the company’s regulation so that any decision affecting the company’s interest can only be made by a unanimous decision of the shareholders including any decision concerning the property [at Porchester Terrace],” he wrote, adding that he had the authority to make this change under a power of attorney granted by his wife.
Eventually, Asadova must have realized what her husband was trying to do. In February 2013, her representatives sent the Panamanian law firm their own email: “It has come to our attention that Mr Kamran Balayev may have been instructing you,” they wrote. “By this letter we give you formal notice that any powers of attorney which have been signed or purport to have been signed by Ms Asadova are hereby revoked.”
Asadova was the winner of this battle, ending up with both the company and the apartment it owned in her divorce settlement. She later sold the apartment for about 1.9 million British pounds ($2.3 million).
Balayev remained in the United Kingdom, eventually running for mayor, founding several companies, and consulting for a now-defunct London law firm.
In a biography posted by the firm, Balayev is described as “passionate about human rights law” — an inspiration for his founding of Attorneys Without Borders, a non-profit human rights organization.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group — which operated between 2013 and 2017 — is not known to have mentioned the grave human rights abuses committed by the Azerbaijani government, including against the few lawyers who step forward to defend the country’s beleaguered dissidents.
After his divorce, Balayev used two more offshore companies, also set up by Alcogal, to buy two London properties for over 3.1 million British pounds ($5.2 million).
Olesya Shmagun (OCCRP), Tom Stocks (OCCRP), Sonya Savina (IStories), Nigar Isgandar, and Habib Muntazir (Meydan.tv) contributed reporting.