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Algeria: Sonatrach corruption trial stopped on day one when witnesses stay away

A corruption trial involving former executives at Algeria’s state-owned oil company Sonatrach was adjourned Sunday shortly after it began when witnesses failed to appear.

The trial was postponed until next month at the request of defense attorneys after several witnesses were no shows. Defense lawyer Chaib Sadek said he and other defense lawyers withdrew after arguing their clients had no guarantee of a fair trial.

“We have decided to postpone the case until a later session,” Judge Mohamed Reggad said. He didn’t set a date for the next hearing.

A range of charges have been brought against 19 defendants including inflating the price of contracts with a state company, embezzlement of public funds, and money laundering.

Former Sonatrach chief Mohamed Meziane was present at the hearing along with his two sons. All three are defendants in the case. Meziane has denied any wrongdoing and told the El Watan newspaper the charges are part of a plot against him.

Over 40 lawyers and 108 witness are slated to take part in the trial, including the company’s current acting chief. None of the defendants have entered a formal plea.

The case centers around five contracts between Sonatrach and an Algerian unit of Germany’s Funkwerk for monitoring equipment and electronic protection services. A source close to the case said an Algerian representative for the German company stands accused of securing special treatment during the contract bidding process in exchange for shares in the company.

Italian prosecutors are conducting a separate investigation into the alleged bribery of Sonatrach officials by oil field services company Saipem, a subsidiary of Italy’s Eni.

Prosecutors claim Saipem paid middlemen $207 million to win about $8.4 billion in contracts with Sonatrach.

Eni and Saipem have denied any wrongdoing.

Last year Eni said a forensic audit it conducted into the allegations cleared the company of wrongdoing. Eni said the audit revealed no evidence “of illegal or corrupt conducts at Eni nor the existence of intermediary contracts between Eni and the third parties under investigation.”

In 2010, Eni and another subsidiary, Snamprogetti Netherlands B.V., paid $365 million to resolve FCPA-related charges for Snamprogetti’s role in the TSKJ-Nigeria joint venture.

The Sonatrach scandal has marred efforts by the Algerian government to attract more foreign investment to the country’s energy sector.

Algeria, an OPEC member, received only four bids last year for 31 oil field blocks put up for auction.

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Nicolas Torres is a staff writer for Petro Global News, where a version of this post first appeared.

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