Defence company plea bargain leads to furore

Critics say that allowing agreement prevents the truth of bribes and corruption allegations being revealed.

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London // There has been a chorus of protests over a deal that will see BAE Systems, the British defence contractor, pay US$447 million (Dh1.64 billion) in fines to settle corruption claims. Long-running inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic have focused on payments allegedly made to secure the $60bn Al Yamamah contract with Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, and other arms deals in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Tanzania.

But anti-arms trade campaigners were furious after a surprise plea bargain was announced late on Friday, saying it meant there would be "no opportunity to discover the truth" about the bribery and corruption allegations. Under the deal announced jointly by the serious fraud office (SFO) in London and the US department of justice, BAE will pay a $400m fine to the Americans and plead guilty to one charge of conspiring to make false statements.

The company will pay the remainder in the UK as a fine for failing to keep "reasonably accurate" records of a contract to supply radar equipment a decade ago. BAE paid £7m (Dh40.2m) to a former marketing adviser in Tanzania during the course of securing the contract. Investigations into the deals have proved an embarrassment to the company and the country. Tony Blair, the prime minister at the time, ordered the SFO to stop investigating the Al Yamamah contract in 2006 after protests by the Saudis.

Richard Alderman, the director of the SFO, said yesterday: "I am very pleased with the global outcome achieved collaboratively with the department of justice. This is a first and it brings a pragmatic end to a long-running and wide-ranging investigation." But Kaye Stearman, a spokeswoman for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: "We are outraged and angry that the allegations about BAE will not be aired in a criminal court and that the serious fraud office has accepted a plea bargain relating only to the smallest deal.

"After the government stopped the SFO's inquiry into the company's Saudi deals, it was even more important the truth about its dealings in central and eastern Europe and Africa was made public." Nicholas Hildyard, from the social justice campaign group Corner House, called on the UK authorities to reopen its investigation into the Al Yamamah deal. "The company's admission obviously calls into question its repeated denials of any wrongdoing," Mr Hildyard said.

"Far from drawing a line under the allegations, the announcement simply raises far more questions and creates yet further demands for justice." Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrats politician who has been leading calls in parliament for a full investigation into all of the bribery allegations, said: "Ultimately, the charges that we now see admitted are administrative charges, not charges of corruption."