Missing Cryptoqueen - Is Dr Ruja Ignatova a major Bitcoin holder?

Files seen by BBC show that a crypto market investor could have lost a fortune due to turmoil in the crypto markets.

Missing Cryptoqueen - Is Dr Ruja Ignatova a major Bitcoin holder?

Files seen by BBC show that a crypto market investor could have lost a fortune due to turmoil in the crypto markets. Dr Ruja Ignatova, "the missing cryptoqueen," was one of these files.

In 2017, the scammer vanished as OneCoin, her cryptocurrency, was in its peak - it had attracted billions of investors. Fraud and money laundering charges in the US led to her being one of the FBI's top ten most wanted fugitives.

Investors were told by the Oxford-educated entrepreneur that she had invented the "Bitcoin Killer", but files show she may have secretly amassed billions of dollars in her rival currency prior to disappearing.

In 2021, details were first revealed in leaked documents from Dubai's court. These documents were posted online by a lawyer who named Dr Ruja - or as she's known – the "most successful criminal of history".

The Missing Cryptoqueen podcast and a new book by Dr Ruja explore how Dr Ruja managed to keep his secrets - and whether the alleged crypto-hoard may help to explain it.

We were able to verify some of the Dubai files' information, but not all.

The leak suggests that Dubai was a key financial route for Dr Ruja. This is something the FBI alluded too when naming the United Arab Emirates one of five countries with which she has had connections.

Dr Jonathan Levy, a lawyer who posted the files online and is now relying upon the information in a OneCoin compensation claim, said that "Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake here."

OneCoin was alleged to have used the web domain hosted by the Supreme Court of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Dr Levy was given thousands of documents in Arabic by a whistleblower, who said he believed it was wrong for people to be "unjustly enriched in Dubai".

The most intriguing claim in Dr Levy’s legal case is that a huge Bitcoin deal was made with Sheikh Saoud Bin Faisal AlQassimi, an Emirati monarch, who is the son of a wealthy businessman.

Further, the files suggest that Sheikh Saoud gave Dr Ruja four USB sticks containing 230,000 Bitcoin in 2015. This was worth EUR48.5m.

Dr Ruja presented three cheques from Mashreq Bank to Sheikh Saoud in return. They totalled approximately 210m Emirati dirhams and roughly EUR50m.

Dubai's Mashreq Bank had already closed Dr Ruja's accounts due to money-laundering concerns. The cheques could not be cashed prior to the alleged transaction.

Dubai authorities defroze Dr Ruja’s funds in 2020, despite the fact she was indicted by the US Department of Justice for OneCoin fraud.

Months prior to the decision, Dr Ruja’s former fund manager Mark Scott was also found guilty of laundering $400m in OneCoin proceeds.

When asked by BBC about the decision, Dubai’s Public Prosecutor didn't respond.

Dubai Court of Appeal records show that Sheikh Saoud sought to have Dr Ruja’s funds transferred to him on 28 April 2022. This suggests that a deal of some sort was originally made between the two. Dr Ruja is listed as a respondent despite not having been seen in public for almost five years.

Although little is known about Sheikh Saoud's body, sources inform us that the avid bodybuilder is seldom seen in public.

In a YouTube video he appears for the Intergovernmental Collaborative Affordable Excellence (ICAFE), which claims to support education initiatives. However, after the Dubai files were published, all references to Sheikh Al Qassimi being ICAFE's Secretary-General disappeared from the website.

The sheikh is also listed as the chairman of a newly launched cryptocurrency. Dubai files show that there was once a close relationship between Dr Ruja and the Al Qassimi clan.

Dr Ruja was contacted by Dubai's Mashreq Bank on 3 September 2015 to inform her that they would be closing her personal accounts.

An email that Dr Ruja sent to OneCoin colleagues about moving EUR50m from Mashreq Bank was admitted by a US court. She mentions that she will be meeting with "one the Sheiks [sic]" in Dubai the next week to "try and get something done for me".

Although it isn't known who Dr Ruja wanted to meet, or if there was a meeting, the files suggest one explanation.

A photo taken from the files, allegedly dated 8/10/15, but taken at an unidentified location, shows Dr Ruja standing beside Sheikh Faisal (the father of Sheikh Saoud).

Sharjah is ruled by the Al Qassimi family. It borders Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah. (RAK), Sharjah's northernmost emirate. We were not able to reach Sheikh Faisal regarding his family's relationship to Dr Ruja.

Also included in the files is a diplomatic ID that Ruja was given as a "special advisor" to ICAFE - an organisation with which Sheikh Saoud used to hold a senior position.

Although the organisation seems to be linked to the United Nations Secretary-General, a spokesperson for that body could not locate any records of it being affiliated via normal channels.

Shariar Rahimi, co-founder of ICAFE, stated that ICAFE was "registered with the UN", but could not provide any evidence. Dr Ruja said that any ICAFE documents she received came from Sheikh Saoud.

Their relationship seems to have soured sometime after Dr Ruja's alleged Bitcoin transaction. One letter in the leaked files shows Sheikh Saoud removing Dr Ruja as an ICAFE Ambassador, and then later getting involved in a legal dispute about her assets.

The case between them was settled by Dubai's Court of Appeal on the 28th of June.

When asked about the alleged Bitcoin transaction, Dr Ruja's relationship and his role at ICAFE Sheikh Saoud's lawyer didn’t respond directly but said: "All of the information that you have is baseless."

According to some reports, the alleged Bitcoin transaction took place using cold-storage wallets. It is difficult to determine if it really happened.

Because all transactions of virtual currency between wallets can be viewed publicly, it is easy to trace bitcoin transactions. The court documents don't include details about the wallets where these bitcoins were kept.

Dr Ruja may have difficulty moving such a large sum of bitcoin if she has them.

David Birch, a crypto-author, believes Bitcoin's reputation of being an "anonymous currency" is false because law enforcement agencies increasingly use clever algorithms to track the coins as they move through the system.

He said, "Getting rid of a few hundred million dollars' worth is a lot harder than you think."

Dr Ruja would still be the largest bitcoin holder if she had 230,000 bitcoins. Her stake in November 2021 would have reached nearly $15bn. However, it is now at $5bn. This is still enough to keep her hidden.

Follow Jamie Bartlett & Rob Byrne via Twitter

Listen to The Missing Cryptoqueen Podcast on BBC Sounds. Dr Ruja Ignatova's search continues in September 2022.

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