Conviction quashed for oil executive accused of bribing Iraqis

Ruling embarrassing blow for UK’s anti-fraud agency that led five-year probe

A U.S. soldier watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad in this April 9, 2003 file photo. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic  AS/CRB

Britain’s top anti-fraud agency was criticised on Friday after judges overturned the conviction of a senior executive for paying bribes to secure lucrative oil projects.

A London appeals court quashed the conviction of Ziad Akle, a manager for Monaco-based Unaoil, who had been jailed for five years in 2020 due to alleged corrupt efforts to secure a $55 million oil deal after the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The court’s ruling criticised the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) over its relations with a US fixer acting for two brothers at the centre of the scandal and for not disclosing key documents to Mr Akle’s legal team.

The refusal to provide key documents in the case “was a serious failure by the SFO to comply with their duty”, the London judges said.

“That failure was particularly regrettable given that some of the documents had a clear potential to embarrass the SFO in their prosecution of this case.”

The judges said they were not suggesting any SFO official deliberately sought to cover anything up — but the criticisms go to the very top of the organisation.

The evidence that the agency failed to hand over was linked to meetings between SFO officials and David Tinsley, a US private investigator and fixer for the brothers who ran Unaoil.

These included meetings with Lisa Osofsky, the head of the SFO — one of a series of contacts that were described by the judges as “wholly inappropriate”.

Mr Akle’s lawyers accused the SFO’s top managers of encouraging the fixer to convince him and another person to plead guilty, while trying to secure a lenient deal for his clients.

He was one of four executives jailed in the UK last year after a five-year inquiry by the SFO into the bribing of officials to clinch oil projects in Iraq worth $1.7 billion.

But the brothers Saman and Cyrus Ahsani, who headed Unaoil, managed to avoid prosecution in the UK after striking a deal with US authorities.

In October 2019, they pleaded guilty in the US to being part of a 17-year scheme to pay millions of dollars in bribes to officials in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. They are reportedly due to be sentenced in Texas this month.

The SFO said that it was reviewing Friday’s ruling after announcing last year that it would review its contacts with the fixer.

“This case became about the conduct of the SFO. By acting in the way it did, it undermined the whole justice system,” Mr Akle’s lawyer, Jo Dimmock, said in a statement.

Updated: December 10th 2021, 4:22 PM