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UK court orders gunrunner to pay over $4.1 million to UAE emirate

Farhad Azima sits at his home in Kansas City, Mo., on May 17, 2016. An Iranian-American aviation magnate and gunrunner tied to the CIA and the Iran-Contra scandal, Azima must pay a sheikhdom in the United Arab Emirates over $4.1 million over a series of business disputes, a British court ruled Friday, May 22, 2020.

JILL TOYOSHIBA/THE KANSAS CITY STAR/AP

By JON GAMBRELL | Associated Press | Published: May 22, 2020

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An Iranian-American aviation magnate and gunrunner tied to the CIA and the Iran-Contra scandal must pay a sheikhdom in the United Arab Emirates over $4.1 million over a series of business disputes, a British court ruled Friday.

The ruling against Farhad Azima caps a yearslong legal dispute stretching across the world between the Kansas City, Missouri resident and the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, one of UAE's seven sheikhdoms along with Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The case renewed questions over whether Azima had what one prosecutor said was  a stay-out-of-jail-free card because of secretive work he had performed for the U.S. government.

While ruling in the emirate's favor, the High Court's judgement also paints Ras al-Khaimah as the Wild West of frontier investing. The 127-page ruling describes the emirate's ruling family, alleging it was a victim of a $2 billion embezzlement and saying it pressured people through detention without charges and worried about internal power struggles.

A statement issued on Azima's behalf said he planned to appeal, reiterating his belief he had been targeted by hackers working for Ras al-Khaimah, something the emirate denies.

"As it stands, this judgment amounts to a hackers' charter," the statement said.

The Ras al-Khaimah Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund that sued Azima, welcomed the ruling. Even Ras al-Khaimah's ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, provided a witness statement for the proceeding against Azima, the judgement said.

"The government of Ras al-Khaimah is continuing to recover stolen assets of the emirate," it said in a statement. "It is committed to bringing to justice those who have misappropriated public funds from the emirate and its people. This decision is another victory in this fight against fraud."

Ras al-Khaimah is in the far northern reaches of the U.S.-allied UAE. It borders Oman and is near the Strait of Hormuz.

The lawsuit stemmed from Azima's work in the emirate to develop a potential cargo airline and pilot training center there, as well as to sell a hotel it owned in Tbilisi, Georgia, and get it to buy a surveillance aircraft. The airline and aircraft deal fell apart, as did the hotel sale that somehow saw three Iranians suspected of having ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guard get involved.

The emirate and Azima fell out in claims and counterclaims. Azima then warned he'd launch a publicity campaign against the emirate over human rights abuses, an effort the ruling described as intending "to draw attention to actual cases of detention and illegality, not fabricated cases." Azima also allegedly sought to incriminate members of the ruling family with criminals like "Latin American drug cartel figures."

The order also describes Sheikh Saud as hiring a private investigator in January 2015 over fears a former official accused of stealing $2 billion had partnered with Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the emirate's former crown prince who was later stripped of his position.

During the dispute, Azima saw gigabytes-worth of his emails hacked and leaked onto the internet. Those emails included Azima's dealing with former CIA officers in a private security firm. One project was a scheme, apparently on behalf of a Kuwaiti ruling family member, to install "new, bolder, more energetic leadership" in the Gulf nation. A top Wall Street Journal reporter was fired  over his involvement with that security firm.

Azima built Global International Airways, a charter and cargo carrier, in the 1970s. The carrier was initially intended to transport cattle from Nebraska to Iran, until the U.S. cut diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Soon the flights were filled with mysterious cargo, including arms.

In 1979, 50 tons of arms on one of Global Airways' planes were found in Tunisia. Azima said the flight had been forced to land at a Tunisian military base to take the weapons onboard instead of medical supplies destined for Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica.

Seven years later, another one of his planes — purportedly leased to his brother — carried 23 tons of weapons into Tehran as part of the Iran-Contra affair, the scheme of secret U.S. arms sales to Iran to pay for illegal U.S. support for Nicaraguan rebels. He again denied involvement.

Azima later won multimillion-dollar contracts with the U.S. military.
 

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