UK court overturns conviction of third Unaoil executive in $6m Iraqi bribery scandal

Britain’s anti-bribery prosecutor has been criticised for making ‘a number of mistakes'

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
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A third man jailed over a multimillion-dollar bribery conspiracy to secure oil infrastructure contracts in Iraq has had his conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal.

The collapse of the third case comes at a time when Britain’s most senior anti-bribery prosecutor has been criticised in a review for making “a number of mistakes” in the case — including texting an alleged “fixer” using her personal phone.

Former Iraq territory manager for energy company Unaoil, Stephen Whiteley, 67, was jailed for three years in 2020 over an alleged plot to pay out bribes totalling $6 million (£4.9 million) to politicians and state-owned companies after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

On Thursday, the UK's Court of Appeal overturned his conviction. The move follows a decision to quash the convictions of his co-defendants Ziad Akle and Paul Bond.

In December last year, Mr Akle had his conviction overturned after three judges found that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had “failed fundamentally” to provide documents that “had a clear potential to embarrass the agency in their prosecution of this case” relating to its contact with US citizen David Tinsley.

A review published this week revealed that Lisa Osofsky, director of the SFO, had messaged Mr Tinsley, a non-legal representative of members of the Ahsani family, the owners of Unaoil, in 2018.

The Court of Appeal previously heard that Mr Tinsley had acted as a “fixer” for the founder of Unaoil, British-Iranian Ata Ahsani, and his two sons.

The review by Sir David Calvert-Smith, a former director of public prosecutions and high court judge, identified a series of “fundamental failures” by senior SFO managers.

The court had heard that Mr Tinsley had contact with Ms Osofsky, and had contacted two defendants to discuss their pleas in a bid to encourage the SFO to not prosecute any of the Ahsani family.

Senior judges previously said the SFO “should have had nothing to do with” Mr Tinsley.

The Ahsani case was ultimately taken to the US, where brothers Cyrus and Saman Ahsani negotiated plea deals in relation to the bribes, but the SFO prosecuted Mr Akle, Mr Whiteley, Mr Bond and a fourth man Basil Al-Jarah.

In March this year, Mr Bond’s conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal, which found that the SFO’s failure to disclose the documents had rendered the conviction unsafe.

Mr Bond’s quashed conviction alone cost an estimated £1.5m, according to the SFO’s annual report.

On Thursday, Mr Whiteley, from Beverley, Yorkshire, made an unopposed bid to overturn his conviction on similar grounds at the Court of Appeal.

Justice Robert Jay, sitting with Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde and Justice Joel Bennathan, said that the SFO accepts “there is no material distinction to be drawn” between Mr Whiteley’s case and those of Mr Bond and Mr Akle.

“We are grateful to the SFO for their realistic approach,” Mr Jay said. “It follows the appeal must be allowed and the conviction quashed.”

An independent review into the SFO’s failings in the case was launched by Attorney General Suella Braverman after it was found that documents that may have “embarrassed” the agency — related to its contact with Mr Tinsley — were not provided.

Updated: July 22, 2022, 12:41 PM