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-dollar business empire, which spans mining, tourism and property interests.
Police detained Van Hoogstraten after a raid on his home on Thursday, charging him with collecting rent on his properties in foreign currency. Zimbabwean law prohibits the use of foreign currency for local goods and services payment.
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, US$79.2 million mansion in Sussex, England, 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. He owns about 200 residential and business properties in Zimbabwe, according to the police, has significant investments on the Zimbabwe stock exchange, and reportedly owns an estimated 600,000 hectares in the country.
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 92,880 South African rand (US$13,000), US$37,586, ?190 (US$375) and 20 billion Zimbabwean dollars, worth around US$3 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," Zimbabwean police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said.
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 US$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 criticized newspaper reporting about the regime in Zimbabwe.
There was speculation on Saturday 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 members of parliament 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 said.