Former Unaoil managers convicted in Britain of Iraq bribery

Convicted of bribing Iraqi officials to clinch lucrative oil projects as the war-ravaged country tried to boost exports after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003

  

LONDON- Two former managers of Monaco-based energy consultancy Unaoil have been convicted in Britain of bribing Iraqi officials to clinch lucrative oil projects as the war-ravaged country tried to boost exports after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The verdict marks a milestone in the British arm of a four-year, global inquiry into how Unaoil, once run by the prominent Ahsani family, helped major Western companies secure energy projects across the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa over two decades.

A London jury found British-Lebanese Ziad Akle, Unaoil's former Iraq territory manager, and Stephen Whiteley, a British former manager for Iraq, Kazakhstan and Angola, guilty of plotting to make corrupt payments to secure oil contracts between 2005 and 2010.

But after a marathon 19 days of deliberations, the jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case against Paul Bond, a British one-time Middle East sales manager for Dutch-based oil and gas services company SBM Offshore . He faces a retrial, the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) confirmed on Monday.

The three men denied any wrongdoing.

The judge lifted reporting restrictions on Monday after a drawn-out trial that was suspended in March as the coronavirus brought parts of the criminal justice system to a halt, and restarted in May in a new court to allow jurors to socially distance.

"These men dishonestly and corruptly took advantage of a government reeling from dictatorship and occupation and trying to reconstruct a war-torn state," said SFO head Lisa Osofsky following the verdicts against Akle and Whiteley.

"They abused the system to cut out competitors and line their own pockets."

The agency has now secured three convictions in the case after Basil Al Jarah, Unaoil's 71-year-old former country manager for Iraq, pleaded guilty last year.

The principal suspects in the case, brothers Cyrus and Saman Ahsani, evaded British investigators and pleaded guilty to bribery in the United States after an extradition battle in Italy in 2018. 

Akle, 45, Whiteley, 65, and Al Jarah will be sentenced on July 22 and 23, the SFO said.

BRIBERY

Prosecutors said the defendants had conspired with others to pay bribes to public officials at the Iraqi South Oil Company and, in Al Jarah's case, Iraqi Ministry of Oil representatives, to secure oil contracts for Unaoil and its clients.

Al Jarah admitted to paying more than $6 million in bribes to secure contracts worth $800 million to supply oil pipelines and offshore mooring buoys. Akle and Whiteley were found guilty of paying more than $500,000 in bribes to secure a $55 million contract for offshore mooring buoys.

In his defence, Akle said payments were authorised for security purposes. Whiteley denied knowing about payments but said he wanted a "level playing field" during a competitive tender.

A lawyer for Whiteley was unable to comment and legal representatives for Akle and Bond did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley, additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Jon Boyle and Catherine Evans) ((kirstin.ridley@thomsonreuters.com; +44 (0) 207 542 7987; Reuters Messaging: kirstin.ridley.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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