The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

Company accused of role in €3 billion Azeri money laundering scheme had Pilatus account - reports

Albert Galea Tuesday, 22 January 2019, 18:22 Last update: about 4 years ago

A Scottish company which has been accused of playing a key role in a €3 billion scheme to launder money out of Azerbaijan had an account with the controversial Pilatus Bank in Malta, reports emanating from the Italian press reveal.

Pilatus Bank was officially shut down last November after the European Central Bank revoked its license.  The Bank has been at the centre of controversy since leaked documents flagged evidence of serious compliance shortcomings in 2016.  It was also alleged that the bank was used to move Azerbaijani millions into Europe.

According to reports from Il Sole 24 Ore and the IRPI (Investigative Reporting Project Italy), Hilux Services is one of five companies under investigation by the Prosecutor's Office in Milan for its alleged involvement in a €3 billion Azerbaijani money laundering scheme which passed through Danske Bank.

Hilux Services held, according to these reports, an account at Danske Bank but also at Pilatus Bank in Malta.

An investigation by Milanese prosecutors is currently underway into the Danske Bank dealings, and rogatory letters have been sent to Denmark, Latvia, Estonia and Great Britain to ascertain the economic beneficiaries of four British companies (the fifth company was registered in New Zealand) which had accounts at Danske Bank.

Il Sole 24 Ore and the IRPI reported that while there was no formal contact between Milanese investigator and Maltese authorities yet: "The inquiry has become intertwined with the investigation in to Pilatus Bank brought to light by Daphne Caruana Galizia before she was assassinated by a car bomb on October 16, 2017."

Hilux Services is registered to a mailbox address in Glasgow, Scotland and was founded on March 26, 2013 by Solberg Business Ltd and Akron Resources Corporation, two companies registered in the British Virgin Islands that have the same address, the reports read. On 3 October 2016 Hilux changed its name by choosing the most sibylline name of "SL012732 Limited Partnership", the reports read.

However, the ultimate beneficial owner of the company has never been revealed. This being said, Il Sole 24 Ore writes that the company's economic beneficiary would have been "the son of a high exponent in the Azeri government".  The Italian media house also notes that "the Maltese front" of the "Azeri Laundromat" is external from the investigations of the Milanese prosecutor's office.

The Italian media house writes that "Pilatus Bank was part of a network that radiated from Azerbaijan to Dubai, the City of London, the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Georgia, Spain and France."

"It is a network that boasted solid connections within the government of Malta and acted as a gateway to the European Union for capital with unclear origins", Il Sole 24 Ore continues.

According to Il Sole 24 Ore's reconstruction, which is based on judicial documents, the five companies under the lens of the Milanese prosecutor received three billion euros from another 24 companies through seven banks of Azerbaijan, Estonia, Latvia, Holland and of Luxembourg. After passing through Danske Bank, Ablv Bank and Baltikums Bank - both Latvian - the suspicious money flowed into 94 other companies passing through the accounts of 36 banks in different countries, from China to Dubai, from Germany to the United States, to Italy, the media house writes.

Hilux Services is the company that links this ring to Malta, through Pilatus Bank, the reports said.  The company registered 12 bank transfers, each of €105,000, for a total of €1.26 million, to the Fondazione Navae Terrae, the report read.  The president of this foundation was Luca Volontè, an Italian politician who was part of the Council of Europe and was named as having been suspected of engaging in "activities of a corruptive nature".  Volontè was investigated on suspicion of taking €2.39 million in bribes from Azerbaijan.  The Italian had already been acquitted on separate charges of money laundering.

Around half of the total €3 billion ring is suspected to have passed through Hilux's bank accounts.  The company's current accounts at Danske Bank and Ablv Bank were, according to the reports, primarily fed by an Azeri company called Baktelecom MMC.

The name of this company mimics that of one of the country's major players in the telecommunications industry Baktelecom; but it is not the same company.  The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported back in September 2017 that this mysterious company, which has neither a website nor any registered commercial activity, had a singular account at the state-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan, with funds going in and out from there.

The only paperwork that the OCCRP could find when it investigated the four companies suspected to be part of this laundering ring was that of Maharram Ahmadov, reports read. The problem however is that, the OCCRP found, Ahmadov is not a billion-dollar financier and businessman. He is actually a modest driver in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. He lives in a humble makeshift home in the Gushchuluq neighbourhood, an area of small poultry farms on the outskirts of Baku.  Ahmadov's role was to hide the true owner of the Laundromat companies and to act as a front for the organizers of the operation, the OCCRP said. 

Where the actual money which has gone through Hilux Services and, in turn reportedly Pilatus Bank among other banks, actually came from, remains a mystery.

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