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27 Jan 2008 07:55
The notorious property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten has been arrested in Zimbabwe on charges of breaking the troubled country’s currency exchange laws and possessing pornography.
The move is being seen in some quarters as part of a plan by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to seize his once close supporter’s multi-million-pound business empire, which spans mining, tourism and property interests.
Police detained Van Hoogstraten after a raid on his home last Thursday, charging him with collecting rent on his properties in foreign currency. Zimbabwean law prohibits the payment of foreign currency for local goods and services.
The arrest represents an astonishing reversal in fortunes for the multi-millionaire father-of-five, who divides his time between Zimbabwe and Hamilton Place, his half-built, Â£40-million mansion in Sussex, from where he runs the British end of his empire.
Van Hoogstraten (62) has made much of his money in Zimbabwe, thanks to his close relationship with Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.
However, crippling inflation has sent Zimbabwe into political and economic turmoil. The country’s central bank chief, Gideon Gono, recently blamed the crisis on “cash barons”, whom he accuses of hoarding Zimbabwean dollars and exchanging them for foreign currency.
According to the police, when arrested Van Hoogstraten was in possession of $37 586, R92 880 and Â£190, as well as Z$20-billion, worth around $3 333 on the black market.
In what seems to have been a carefully orchestrated media operation by the authorities, news bulletins showed police parading Van Hoogstraten before state television cameras holding wads of money. “Van Hoogstraten is being charged under the exchange control regulations for charging a service and dealing in foreign currency,” said Zimbabwean police spokesperson Wayne Bvudzijena.
He added that the tycoon had demanded six months’ rent in foreign currency from his tenants, one of whom had been an informant. “The police informant had been asked to pay in the region of $8 000,” Bvudzijena said, adding that the tycoon also faced charges linked to pornographic material found in his house. If found guilty, Van Hoogstraten will face a fine and be forced to hand over the foreign money, according to local media reports.
Until recently Van Hoogstraten was a firm supporter of Mugabe and has boasted of his close relationship with the president. He has said Mugabe was one of the first people to offer him congratulations on his release from prison after being jailed for manslaughter. He has also criticised newspaper reporting about the regime in Zimbabwe.
There was speculation on Saturday night that his arrest may have more to do with Zimbabwe’s changing political landscape than his alleged currency violations. David Banks, a close observer of political developments in Zimbabwe, who has met Van Hoogstraten and advises MPs on the country’s state of affairs, said it had always been a question of when, rather than whether, the tycoon fell out with Mugabe. “This is a brutal dictator who murdered friends and colleagues when they threatened his grip on power, so why should he worry about what happens to Van Hoogstraten?” Banks asked.
With elections due in March, Van Hoogstraten’s arrest was a political move designed to shore up Mugabe’s position, Banks suggested. “Mugabe is running out of patronage,” he said. “There is a shortage of sweeteners he can offer to try to buy support. His arrest may signal Mugabe intends to start seizing Van Hoogstraten’s assets.”
Van Hoogstraten’s arrest is the latest in a long line of clashes with the law. In the Sixties Van Hoogstraten—who has referred to his tenants as “scum”—was jailed for four years for arranging for a hand grenade to be thrown through the window of someone who owed him money. In 2002 he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in jail after a business associate, Mohammed Raja, was shot and killed by two hired hitmen. He appealed against the conviction, which was overturned in 2003. In 2005 a civil court ordered that Van Hoogstraten pay the murdered man’s family Â£6-million in damages. - Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008
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