LONDON (Reuters) - The wife of an unidentified banker lost an appeal against a British High Court ruling attempting to seize properties worth about 22 million pounds ($28.5 million) allegedly illegally acquired, in the first use of new powers to combat corruption.
Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO), which came into effect earlier this year, are designed to make it easier for police to seize property and assets.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) had ordered the woman, who is known as Mrs A and cannot be named for legal reasons, to reveal the source of her wealth or risk losing two properties.
On Wednesday, Justice Michael Supperstone at London’s High Court dismissed the woman’s attempt to overturn the order after her lawyers argued that a fraud conviction against her husband in his home country was unjust. He also ruled that she could be identified next Wednesday unless she wins an appeal.
The NCA alleges that the woman bought two properties using money embezzled by her husband when he worked as a senior official at a state bank in their home country outside the European Economic Area.
The hearing was being seen as a test case for the UWOs, which aim to force suspected corrupt foreign officials and their families to account for their wealth.
“I am very pleased that the court dismissed the respondent’s arguments today - this demonstrates that the NCA is absolutely right to ask probing questions about the funds used to purchase prime property,” Donald Toon, NCA director for economic crime, said after the verdict.
“We are determined to use the powers available to us to their fullest extent where we have concerns that we cannot determine legitimate sources of wealth.”
Earlier hearings had heard about the woman’s extravagant habits, including using a private jet and spending more than 16 million pounds at the London department store Harrods.
On one day alone, she spent 150,000 pounds on jewellery in the luxury shop.
Lawyers for the woman told the court that they would appeal the rulings on the property and her right to anonymity.
Britain’s focus on cracking down on illicit wealth has intensified because of concerns over the activities of Russian businessmen with suspected links to President Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of the March poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England.
Britain blamed the poisoning on Russia but the Kremlin has denied any involvement.
The new wealth orders were introduced because of the difficulties for police in proving how suspects obtained their wealth overseas.
The onus is now on the owner to show that any asset worth more than 50,000 pounds was obtained by legitimate means, rather than for police to have to prove it was obtained illegally.
Editing by Stephen Addison