Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Assad’s London fixer uses offshore firms to hold luxury London flats

Panama Papers reveal businessman linked to Syrian president invested in UK property after his name was taken off EU blacklist

Bashar al-Assad’s London-based fixer, a businessman with technology interests called Soulieman Marouf, has held at least six luxury flats in London worth nearly £6m through British Virgin Islands (BVI) companies, the Panama Papers reveal.
As the civil war escalated, he carried out shopping errands for the Syrian president’s London-educated wife, Asma. In March 2012, the Guardian published a series of leaked emails in which Asma placed orders with Marouf for goods worth thousands of pounds from Armani and Harrods.
Marouf used offshore companies to hold a portfolio of London homes, including a £1m riverfront luxury flat in St George Wharf in Vauxhall, a £1.2m apartment at the Norman Foster-designed Albion Riverside building in Battersea, and a £1.3m home in St John’s Wood. Using offshore companies to hold property can lawfully cut tax bills. Until recently, such structures were exempt from stamp duty and capital gains taxes for non-UK residents.
In October 2012, Marouf’s assets were frozen in Europe. The sanctions notice described him as a supporter of the Syrian regime and “close to President al-Assad’s family”.
The Albion Riverside building in Battersea.
 The Albion Riverside building in Battersea. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian
The freezing order meant Marouf could not sell or otherwise deal with his London flats without first obtaining a licence. His lawyer said licences were “obtained when required” from the Treasury.
Most of the restrictions were short-lived. With backing from William Hague, then foreign secretary, his name was removed from the European Union blacklist in June 2014. Restrictions have since been lifted from Marouf’s properties.
He is still actively investing in UK property. The latest files show that since September 2014 he has registered two new companies in the BVI, both named after London addresses: 59 Regent Court Investments Limited and 7A Regents Gate Limited. In November 2014, Marouf’s offshore company acquired a flat at 59 Regent Court in St John’s Wood for £500,000.
A lawyer for Marouf said: “There are a number of reasons for utilising offshore companies, including the desire for privacy. Full disclosure has been given to [the] Treasury and/or HMRC [Revenue & Customs] and the UK tax authorities have acknowledge that these companies are compliant with UK tax laws. The UK authorities are fully aware that our client is the beneficial owner of these companies.”
Panama Papers reporting team: Juliette Garside, Luke Harding, Holly Watt, David Pegg, Helena Bengtsson, Simon Bowers, Owen Gibson and Nick Hopkins

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