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UK Enforcement: Two former Unaoil execs convicted of Iraq bribes

In a much-needed win for the Serious Fraud Office, two out of three defendants it was prosecuting for corruption in the Unaoil case were found guilty by a London jury Monday after 19 days of deliberations.

Ziad Akle — former Iraq territory manager for oil and gas company, Unaoil — was convicted on two counts of conspiracy to make corrupt payments to an Iraqi official. Former vice president of Dutch energy services company, SBM Offshore, and subsequently Unaoil’s general territories manager, Stephen Whitely, was found guilty of one count. Both are scheduled to be sentenced later this month.

At the same time, the jury could not reach a verdict in the case of former sales manager at SBM Offshore, Paul Bond. The SFO is seeking a retrial in Bond’s case.

The three defendants had been charged with conspiracy to make corrupt payments in the Iraqi oil industry following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. According to the SFO, the defendants conspired with members of the Ahsani family, who control Unaoil, and others to pay a key Iraqi official in the state-owned South Oil Company over $600,000 to influence tender exercises in favor of their clients.

The SFO argued that in total corrupt payments worth $5.4 million had been paid to senior figures in the Iraqi Ministry of Oil to secure approval for a series of construction projects, including two new pipelines worth $800 million.

This was one of the first jury trials to resume in the UK following a two-month pause resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. A socially distanced trial restarted on May 13 at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, spread over three courtrooms. Some of the defendants attended remotely via an audio link, a fact that the judge stressed when summing up should not be held in any way against them.

As the trial resumed, the defense sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds that if a conviction resulted, it might be unsafe because there would “always be a feeling that the jury cowed to the pressure of the pandemic.” The judge dismissed the application, noting that while he understood the pressure that the jury might be under, he had spoken in detail with them and urged them to bring him any concerns that might impact upon their ability to fulfill their duty as jurors.

In the United States, Unaoil’s  former CEO Cyrus Ahsani and former COO Saman Ahsani, both UK citizens, pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In 2018, Unaoil’s former business development director, Steven Hunter, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA. He’s a UK resident. All three are waiting to be sentenced.

In London, questions left at the end of Monday’s verdict are why the victims of corruption in Iraq did not get more of a hearing in court, and whether the bosses of those being prosecuted, who cut a deal with the U.S. DOJ, will get off more lightly than their employees, and if so what message that sends about global bribery enforcement.

A version of this post previously appeared on Spotlight on Corruption and is republished here with permission. 

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