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'Justice for the Iraqi people': Unaoil executive jailed in massive oil corruption scandal

Friday, 24 July 2020 14:10

London: A British judge says the jailing of a man who "sold his soul" by joining a major corruption ring will hopefully offer some sense of justice to the Iraqi people whose vast oil fields were exploited after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Ziad Akle was sentenced to five years in prison on Thursday for his "leading role" in the Unaoil corruption scandal first exposed by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in 2016.

In his sentencing remarks, Judge Martin Beddoe said the 45-year-old and others involved in the affair had exploited Iraq at its most fragile moment by plotting to bribe senior government officials so their clients could win lucrative oil contracts.

"In a country not on its knees but in fact flattened, the corruption here seriously undermined the proper functioning of national business and public services," Beddoe said.

 The corruption occurred when "those of us in the West owed that country help to do its best to recover and move ahead from the effects of a war we had chosen to start", he added.

"It is to be hoped in the eyes of the Iraqis this case adds a little to the redress they are owed."

Akle, the former Iraqi territory manager for Unaoil, will serve half of his five-year term in prison and the other half on parole.

Another former Unaoil executive, Stephen Whiteley, was also found guilty of conspiracy to give corrupt payments by a jury last week and was to be sentenced with Akle on Thursday.

But in a dramatic development, Whiteley's lawyer told the court his client had collapsed at home that morning and was taken to hospital for treatment. He claimed Whiteley - who will now be sentenced at a later date - may have suffered a stroke.

Unaoil was used as a middle-man by some of the world's best-known companies such as Rolls Royce, Hyundai, Samsung and Halliburton to win lucrative oil and gas contracts during the reconstruction of war-torn Iraq.

Akle and Whiteley conspired to pay some $500,000 in bribes to officials from the South Oil Company - a state-owned company in charge of southern Iraq's oil resources - to help win a $55 million contract for Dutch firm SBM Offshore, a Unaoil client.

Another man involved in Unaoil bribery, Basil Al Jarah, pleaded guilty last year and is awaiting sentence.

Beddoe threw out an argument by Akle's lawyer, Jim Sturman QC, that his client did not know what was going on at the Monaco-based Unaoil because he was subordinate to other company officials.

 "I have no doubt you weren’t going to sell your intelligence, your experience and your soul lightly and you did not do so," the judge told Akle.

"I have no doubt from the evidence I heard in the trial that the way Unaoil sought to position itself - which was by corruption - was something that you, Mr Akle, was at a very early stage fully aware of."

He said Akle was part of an email thread "riddled with evidence that corruption was rife". Akle targeted Oday Al Quoraishi, a senior official at South Oil Company, to manipulate tenders so they could be won by Unaoil clients.

"What is clear is from the outset, Mr Akle knew that Mr Al Quoraishi was not doing what he was going to do out of the kindness of his heart or for the benefit of the people of Iraq."

 The judge was prepared to hand Akle a six-year sentence but reduced it to five based on pre-existing health conditions and fears he was at a higher risk from COVID-19 in prison.

The principal suspects in the Unaoil scandal, British brothers Cyrus and Saman Ahsani, pleaded guilty in the US to being part of a multimillion-dollar scheme to bribe government officials across nine countries last year.

Beddoe described Akle as an "extra pair of ears and eyes" for the Ahsanis.

Unaoil and the Ahsani family tried to block the publication of The Age and Herald's 2016 story through a concerted public relations campaign denying wrongdoing, and through threatened legal action against the masthead and its journalists.

A third defendant, Paul Bond, will face a retrial after jurors were unable to reach a verdict on bribery charges.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald