Money from ‘world’s biggest bribe scandal’ invested in UK character | U…

They are the British-Iranian family behind what has been called the “world’s biggest bribe scandal”.

For 17 years, 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 by an complicate chain of offshore companies that secretly helped fund the acquisition of a string of UK similarities.

The Pandora papers, a huge leak of secret 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 the minimum £7.5m of Unaoil proceeds were funnelled via offshore companies into investment funds and blended with funds from outside investors.

Quick Guide

What are the Pandora papers?


The Pandora papers are the largest trove of leaked data exposing tax haven secrecy in history. They provide a scarce window into the hidden world of offshore finance, casting light on the financial secrets of some of the world’s richest people. The files were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which shared access with the Guardian, BBC and other media outlets around the world. In total, the trove consists of 11.9m files leaked from a total of 14 offshore service providers, totalling 2.94 terabytes of information. That makes it larger in quantity than both the Panama papers (2016) and Paradise papers (2017), two past offshore leaks.

Where did the Pandora documents from come?

The ICIJ, a Washington DC-based journalism nonprofit, is not identifying the source of the leaked documents. In order to ease a global investigation, the ICIJ gave far away access to the documents to journalists in 117 countries, including reporters at the Washington Post, Le Monde, El País, Süddeutsche Zeitung, PBS Frontline and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In the UK, the investigation has been led by the Guardian and BBC Panorama.

What is an offshore service provider?

The 14 offshore service providers in the leak provide corporate sets to individuals or companies seeking to do business offshore. Their clients are typically seeking to discreetly set up companies or trusts in lightly regulated tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Panama, the Cook Islands and the US state of South Dakota. Companies registered offshore can be used to keep up assets such as character, aircraft, yachts and investments in stocks and shares. By holding those assets in an offshore company, it is possible to hide from the rest of the world the identity of the person they truly belong to, or the “advantageous owner”.

Why do people move money offshore?

Usually for reasons of tax, secrecy or regulation. Offshore jurisdictions tend to have no income or corporation taxes, which makes them potentially attractive to wealthy individuals and companies who don’t want to pay taxes in their home countries. Although morally questionable, this kind of tax avoidance can be legal. Offshore jurisdictions also tend to be highly secretive and publish little or no information about the companies or trusts incorporated there. This can make them useful to criminals, such as tax evaders or money launderers, who need to hide money from tax or law enforcement authorities. It is also true that people in corrupt or unstable countries may use offshore providers to put their assets beyond the reach of repressive governments or criminal adversaries who may try to seize them, or to seek to circumvent hard money restrictions. Others may go offshore for reasons of inheritance or estate planning.

Has everyone named in the Pandora papers done something wrong?

No. Moving money offshore is not in or of itself illegal, and there are authentic reasons why some people do it. Not everyone named in the Pandora papers is suspected of wrongdoing. Those who are may stand accused of a wide range of misbehaviour: from the morally questionable by to the potentially criminal. The Guardian is only publishing stories based on leaked documents after considering the public interest. That is a general concept that may include furthering transparency by revealing the secret offshore owners of UK character, already where those owners have done nothing wrong. Other articles might illuminate issues of important public argue, raise moral questions, discarded light on how the offshore industry operates, or help inform voters about politicians or donors in the interests of democratic accountability.

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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 examination of public documents.

Humberside Enterprise Park.
One of the similarities acquired and later sold was a Humberside business park. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

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 character market is being used by white-collar criminals and kleptocrats to stash fortunes made in corrupt states.

In December, the Home Office and Treasury said the money laundering risk in the UK character sector had increased from medium to high since 2017, warning: “Commercial character, particularly office and retail space, remains attractive [to money launderers].” They additional: “The complicate, 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, already 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 obtain large contracts in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

Saman Ahsani, chief operating officer of Unaoil
Saman Ahsani was chief operating officer of Unaoil. Photograph: Rebecca Marshall/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

The fallout from the exposure included both Cyrus and Saman Ahsani pleading guilty in the US during 2019 to easing the payment of bribes between 1999 and 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. In addition, 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.

Sunniside Leisure area of Sunderland
Proceeds from Unaoil appear to have been laundered via a chain of offshore firms that secretly helped fund the acquisition of UK similarities, including a multiplex in Sunderland. Photograph: Mark Pinder/The Guardian

However, 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.

In the US, 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 argument this, although it is unclear what the terms of this agreement are.

Tom Martin led the SFO’s investigation into Unaoil between 2016 and 2018. An employment tribunal ruled this year that he was unfairly sacked by the SFO. He told the tribunal that Ata Ahsani hit 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 different to prosecution”.

Ata Ahsani’s lawyers said it was fanciful and deliberately misleading to suggest that “one can (simply) 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.

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Lawyers for the Ahsanis said this figure was inaccurate and an inflated assertion by Martin, who had never been able to substantiate it. They additional 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, said: “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.”

Now, for the first time, documents show 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 sets 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 character 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 character, 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 connected 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.

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