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Pilatus whistleblower claims Azeri billionaire is behind 17 Black

Maria Efimova says businessman and poker player Manouchehr Ahadpur Khangah is behind mysterious company linked to Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri 

Manouchehr Ahadpur Khangah is an avid poker player

Pilatus Bank whistleblower Maria Efimova has claimed that Manouchehr Ahadpur Khangah, a close associate of Azerbaijan’s dictator Ilham Aliyev is behind the ‘target client’ of Panama companies owned by minster Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri.

“Mr. Khangah is behind 17 Black. The company is named after Blackjack’s 17 points rule,” Efimova said in a Twitter post accompanied by a link to a report on the Azeri billionaire’s exploits in a poker tournament in Barcelona in 2016.

In a subsequent tweet, Efimova said that Khangah owned Mulsanne Investments incorporated in Malta in December 2014 and Mulsanne Investments incorporated in Guernsey in April 2015.

Efimova alleged that Khangah received money into his Pilatus Bank account “in the form of a loan from another Pilatus client” and then made a shareholder loan to Mulsanne Investments. In turn, Mulsanne Investments transferred funds to Khangah’s Guernsey-registered company with the same name. The Maltese company was then dissolved, Efimova added.

Khangah described by the US State Department as a very close “collaborator” of Aliyev set up a number of companies in Malta a few days after Prime Minister Joseph Muscat visited Azerbaijan with Mizzi and Schembri.

The Times had reported that in December 2014 Khangah registered Mulsanne Investments Ltd together with BTI Management Limited, a company owned by Nexia BT. One month later Khangah set up six further holding companies in Malta. Mulsanne Investments, held all the shares in the new companies except for one share which was held by a subsidiary of Nexia BT.

Khangah’s companies did not last long however and by 2016 all of his Malta-registered companies were put into liquidation.

New magisterial inquiry 

Last month, Magistrate Francesco Depasquale ordered an inquiry and concluded that Mizzi, Schembri and Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna and Karl Cini – have to a case to answer on allegations of bribery, attempted money laundering and false declarations to public authorities in relation to 17 Black.

A newly discovered set of emails in the Panama Papers shows that the offshore firms of Mizzi and Schembri were planning to have two Dubai firms, called 17 Black and MacBridge, become “main target clients” — meaning they planned to do business with them.

The team behind the Daphne Project found that the two Dubai companies received unexplained payments of US$ 1.6 million from an offshore company in the Seychelles. The transactions were flagged by the US financial intelligence unit as suspicious of money laundering.

While Mizzi claimed all along that the firms were not planning to do any business, Schembri had earlier confirmed that 17 Black and MacBridge were discussed as potential clients of the firms.

Both men, however have so far refused to reveal who owns 17 Black and MacBridge.

A further $200,000 payment was wired to 17 Black by Orion Engineering, a company owned by the local agent for the tanker that supplies gas to the Delimara power station partly owned by Azerbaijan’s oil company SOCAR, according to the report by Malta’s anti-money laundering agency (FIAU).

However, FIAU investigators did not manage to uncover information about the people behind 17 Black.

Who is Manouchehr Ahadpur Khangah?

Leaked WikiLeaks cable reports drawn up by the US State Department describe Khangah, who also holds an Iranian passport, as “the CEO or ‘frontman’ of a substantial portion of Azeri Minister of Emergencies Kamaladdin Heydarov’s family business empire.

According to the cables, in which the US embassy in Baku profiled the most powerful families in Azerbaijan back in 2010, Khangah was said to be in business with Heydarov’s children. Heydarov is often described as the most powerful minister in the Aliyev government and according to the US State Department he “controls more visible assets and wealth within the country than President Aliyev”.

The leaked cables also showed that Khangah expressed a desire to purchase a Gulfstream jet together with Dubai-registered Shams al Sahra FZCO which murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia claimed to have been used to transfer upwards of $1 million to the Panamanian company Egrant Inc, which allegedly belonged to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s wife, Michelle.

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