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The Metropolitan Police seized more than £1.4bn worth of bitcoin derived from a huge investment fraud in China, a London court heard on Tuesday, one of the largest seizures of the cryptocurrency by law enforcement globally.
The disclosure came during the trial of Jian Wen, 42, who is accused of laundering bitcoin on behalf of her former employer, an alleged fugitive from the Beijing authorities. Wen has pleaded not guilty.
In 2018 the UK police seized four separate devices containing more than 61,000 bitcoin from a safety deposit box and a property where Wen and her then-employer, Yadi Zhang, lived at the time, Southwark Crown Court heard.
The prosecution told the jury at the start of the trial on Monday that the bitcoin derived from an investment fraud Zhang had committed in China between 2014 and 2017.
Zhang, whose real name is Zhimin Qian, stole roughly £5bn from more than 128,000 investors. She then converted the money into bitcoin and arrived, under a false identity, in London in 2017, the court heard.
She has since fled the UK and remains at large, according to prosecutors.
Wen is not accused of any involvement in that fraud. However, she has been accused of helping to convert some of Zhang’s bitcoin into cash, jewellery and other luxury items, as well as property, while allegedly knowing it was the proceeds of crime.
Gillian Jones KC, counsel for the Crown Prosecution Service, told the jury on Tuesday that Wen had tried to purchase a £12.5mn London property on behalf of Zhang in 2018 using the law firm Mishcon de Reya. The purchase had failed because the law firm could not verify the source of the bitcoin, the jury heard. In October that year, the Met froze money held by Mishcon in its client account.
Wen had moved to the UK in 2007 from China and became a British citizen in 2018. She has described herself as Zhang’s “carer” and said she believed all of Zhang’s bitcoin had derived from legitimate business activities, Jones told the jury.
But Jones said on Monday that Wen was a “front person” who was paid to “keep Ms Zhang in the background”.
“Ms Wen had been trusted not only with copies of the passwords and passphrases to access the laptops [containing the bitcoin] but with access to where the laptops were being stored,” Jones said.
Before meeting Zhang in 2017, Wen had worked in Chinese takeaway restaurants, the court heard.
The trial continues.