SFO's Unaoil Trial Adjourned Amid Coronavirus Fears

Law360, London (March 17, 2020, 11:42 AM GMT) -- The London criminal trial of three men accused of bribing an Iraqi public official will be adjourned starting Wednesday for at least two weeks amid concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus.

Judge Martin Beddoe said at Southwark Crown Court on Tuesday that the Serious Fraud Office’s prosecution of former Unaoil executives Ziad Akle and Stephen Whiteley and ex-SBM Offshore employee Paul Bond would resume on March 31.

Bond, who worked at the oil consulting firm's Dutch client SBM, is the last defendant to be cross-examined over allegations the three men conspired to make corrupt payments to an agent of an Iraqi state-run oil company responsible for overhauling the country’s infrastructure after Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

The court will sit late on Tuesday to insure that all evidence is covered, the SFO said. Closing speeches will begin when the trial restarts.

“The situation is being monitored and assessed as per HM Courts & Tribunals Service, Public Health England and government guidance,” the SFO said.

The suspension comes as courts across Europe take measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, with some restricting access and altering their procedures.

The civil and criminal courts in England and Wales continued to operate as usual on Tuesday, following Prime Minister Boris Johnson's call for residents to work from home and avoid socializing, especially in London.

The case centers on allegations that Unaoil paid $6 million in bribes to “tip the scales" in favor of companies vying for $800 million in contracts to build oil pipelines and offshore mooring stations in Iraq.

The tender process for the projects was "corrupted" because Unaoil bribed Oday Al Quoraishi, the head of the Iraqi-run South Oil Co., in exchange for confidential technical specifications on the design of projects, prosecutors allege.

The SFO's case against Unaoil and its staff dates from 2016, when the agency said it began investigating the energy services company on suspicion of bribery, corruption and money laundering. Unaoil has denied the allegations.

The men are accused of working alongside Unaoil Ltd.’s Iraq partner, Basil Al Jarah, who pled guilty to five charges of conspiracy in July 2019.

The SFO has claimed that, between 2010 and 2013, Al Jarah and others conspired to pay bribes to public officials to secure a £555 million ($661 million) contract for Leighton Contractors Singapore for a project to build two oil pipelines in the war-ravaged country, according to the indictment.

Akle, 44, Unaoil’s territory manager in Iraq, has been charged with three offenses. Bond, 67, faces two counts. Whiteley, 64, who worked for SBM before becoming Unaoil’s general territories manager for Iraq, Kazakhstan and Angola in 2009, faces two counts. They all deny the charges.

Akle testified earlier during the trial and claimed Unaoil was working with South Oil to help counter “corrupt influences” within the government — not plotting to bribe officials.

The SFO is represented by Michael Brompton QC of 5 Paper Buildings, Gillian Jones QC and Faras Baloch of Red Lion Chambers and Thomas Daniel of 2 Bedford Row.

Whiteley is represented by Adrian Eissa QC and Samantha Riggs of 25 Bedford Row chambers, instructed by JMW Solicitors.

Akle is represented by Jim Sturman QC and Duncan Jones of 25 Bedford Row, represented by White & Case LLP.

Bond is represented by Howard Godfrey QC of 2 Bedford Row, instructed by Mary Monson Solicitors.

The case is R v. Akle, and others, case number T20177415, at Southwark Crown Court.

--Editing by Tom Mudd.

Update: This story has been updated with additional details on the case.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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