Africa’s first female billionaire and the daughter of a former Angolan president, Isabel dos Santos, has today lost her bid to prevent up to £580million of her assets from being frozen.
Isabel is being sued by telecoms operator Unitel SA, a company she founded during her father Jose Eduardo dos Santos’ 38 years-long reign as president, which came to an end in 2017.
The businesswoman has faced corruption accusations in the southwestern African nation for years but previously told London’s High Court she is the victim of a ‘campaign of oppression’ by Angola.
She denies the allegations and says she is the target of a long-running political vendetta, which has seen her assets frozen or seized in Angola and Portugal.
Unitel asked the High Court to grant a worldwide freezing order over dos Santos’ assets at a hearing last month and today Judge Robert Bright granted the order.
In a written ruling, the judge told dos Santos ‘the other freezing orders mean that it is not just and convenient for this court to grant a further order’, reported Sky News.
The businesswoman owns a £21million house in St Mary’s Place, close to Albert Hall, which is listed online as the most expensive house in South Kensington.
She is accused of taking out hundreds of millions of pounds worth of loans from Unitel through another company she owned, which were never repaid.
Lawyers for Unitel asked London’s High Court to freeze her UK assets, including banning her from sale of her ‘very high-value real property’ whilst they pursue the £580m they say they are owed.
But lawyers for Ms dos Santos said the allegations against her are ‘trumped up’ and politically motivated, and had asked for the application to be dismissed on the basis that the Angolan government is pursuing a ‘vendetta’ against her.
As part of her defence, they claimed a freezing order against her in Angola was obtained ‘on the basis of fabricated evidence,’ including bizarrely ‘a forged copy of her passport, featuring the signature of Bruce Lee’.
Isabel dos Santos is the eldest child of Angola’s former President José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled the country from 1979 to 2017.
According to Forbes magazine, she was once considered Africa’s richest woman, with a net worth exceeding US$2 billion.
She was later dropped from the Forbes list in January 2021 after the freezing of her assets in Angola, Portugal, and the Netherlands.
Since 2018 she has faced attempts by the Angolan government to prosecute her over allegations of corruption.
Paul Sinclair KC, for Unitel, previously told Mr Justice Bright that the company ‘seeks a worldwide freezing order (‘WFO’) against its former chair, Isabel dos Santos, in support of wide-ranging claims against her’.
‘Isabel dos Santos, touted as Africa’s first female billionaire, is a controversial figure, accused of benefiting from the kleptocratic regime of her late father, the former longtime President of Angola,’ he said.
‘She, and companies associated with her, have been the subject of freezing injunctions, which have been breached, and adverse judgments in jurisdictions across the world.
‘She has been found to have committed forgery, is subject to criminal investigation, and is barred from the US for corruption.
‘She faces allegations of benefiting from corruption and kleptocracy, as well as of looting Angolan state companies,’ he added, claiming that Ms Dos Santos owes the company £580m in unpaid loans and interest.
‘There are obvious legitimate reasons to pursue her. On its case, she caused (Unitel SA) to transfer hundreds of millions of its euros and tens of millions of its dollars to an entity she wholly owns, UIH.
‘Then she let UIH default on the loans, and directed it not to constitute the security it promised. Those are classic circumstances in which a company would sue a former director.’
He denied ‘that Unitel is, in effect, the Angolan state or is a puppet of it, and that this litigation is being run as part of a state-sponsored vendetta against her.’
‘This is wrong. The litigation is brought for commercial reasons,’ he said.
But for Ms Dos Santos, Richard Hill KC previously told the court that the freezing order sought is ‘oppressive and unnecessary’.
He also said the Angolan freezing order was obtained with ‘fabricated evidence, which included a forged copy of her passport featuring the signature of Bruce Lee’.
He claimed she is the victim of a ‘political campaign’ which was launched to discredit her and protect ‘persons responsible’ for a ‘fraud’ she says she uncovered when she was chair of a state oil company in 2016.
‘Unitel does not have a good arguable case and certainly not for the sum it claims,’ he told the judge.
‘This is not by some distance a suitable case for a freezing order.
‘Its claim for loss is fundamentally flawed. There is no real risk of dissipation, as demonstrated not least by the fact that this application has been on foot for more than a year, and yet Ms Dos Santos has taken no steps to dissipate her assets.’
He told the judge there is ‘extensive freezing relief’ already in place in other countries, saying it was ‘difficult to see what useful purpose the claimant thinks the proposed order will serve’.
He also argued that properties and other assets owned by her though companies were not a legitimate target for any freezing order that might be made.