July 13, 2020 / 12:17 PM / a month ago

UPDATE 3-Former Unaoil managers convicted in Britain of Iraq bribery

* Ziad Akle and Stephen Whiteley found guilty

* Third defendant Paul Bond faces retrial after hung jury

* Verdict a relief for Britain's Serious Fraud Office

* Ahsani brothers, who ran Unaoil, pleaded guilty in the U.S. (Adds Akle team referring case to Court of Appeal, details)

By Kirstin Ridley

LONDON, July 13 (Reuters) - Two former managers of Monaco-based energy consultancy Unaoil have been convicted in Britain of bribing Iraqi officials to clinch lucrative oil projects as the war-ravaged country tried to boost exports after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The verdict marks a milestone in the British arm of a four-year, global inquiry into how Unaoil, once run by the prominent Ahsani family, helped major Western companies secure energy projects across the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa over two decades.

A London jury found British-Lebanese Ziad Akle, Unaoil's former Iraq territory manager, and Stephen Whiteley, a British former manager for Iraq, Kazakhstan and Angola, guilty of plotting to make corrupt payments to secure oil contracts between 2005 and 2010.

But after a marathon 19 days of deliberations, the jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case against Paul Bond, a British one-time Middle East sales manager for Dutch-based oil and gas services company SBM Offshore. He faces a retrial, the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) confirmed.

The three men denied any wrongdoing.

"These men dishonestly and corruptly took advantage of a government reeling from dictatorship and occupation and trying to reconstruct a war-torn state," said SFO head Lisa Osofsky.

"They abused the system to cut out competitors and line their own pockets."

The judge lifted reporting restrictions on Monday after a drawn-out trial that was suspended in March, as the coronavirus brought parts of the criminal justice system to a halt, and restarted in May in a new court to allow jurors to socially distance.

The SFO has now secured three convictions in the case after Basil Al Jarah, Unaoil's 71-year-old former country manager for Iraq, pleaded guilty last year.

Akle, 45, Whiteley, 65, and Al Jarah will be sentenced on July 22 and 23, the SFO said.

However, the SFO's principal suspects in the case, British brothers Cyrus and Saman Ahsani, pleaded guilty to bribery in the United States last year.

Cyrus Ahsani, the former Unaoil chief executive, and Saman Ahsani, once the company's chief operating officer, have yet to be sentenced.

BRIBERY

Prosecutors in London said the defendants had conspired with others to pay bribes to public officials at the Iraqi South Oil Company and, in Al Jarah's case, Iraqi Ministry of Oil representatives, to secure oil contracts for Unaoil and its clients.

Al Jarah admitted to paying more than $6 million in bribes to secure contracts worth $800 million to supply oil pipelines and offshore mooring buoys. Akle and Whiteley were found guilty of paying more than $500,000 in bribes to secure a $55 million contract for offshore mooring buoys.

In his defence, Akle said payments were authorised for security purposes. Whiteley denied knowing about payments but said he wanted a "level playing field" during a competitive tender.

A lawyer for Akle said her team would refer his conviction to the Court of Appeal because of concerns about the SFO conduct during the case. "We advanced our arguments in court and argued their conduct was so bad it amounted to an abuse of process," said Jo Dimmock, a partner at White & Case.

Legal representatives for Whiteley and Bond were not available for comment.

AHSANIS

The SFO investigation originally centred on the Ahsani family, but failed extradition hearings, culminating in a clash in Italy with U.S. prosecutors over the extradition of Saman Ahsani in 2018, meant the UK agency's attempts to bring them to Britain for trial were thwarted.

Cyrus Ahsani, 51, and 46-year-old Saman pleaded guilty in the United States last year to being part of a multi-million dollar scheme to bribe government officials across nine countries.

Saman Ahsani declined to comment. A representative for his brother was not immediately available for comment.

U.S. prosecutors listed seven co-conspirators and 27 multinational client companies when announcing the pleas. Only engineering giant Rolls-Royce and SBM Offshore were named. Both agreed settlements and deferred prosecution agreements in 2017.

In Britain, linked inquiries continue into British subsidiaries of engineering and construction group KBR and oilfield service provider Petrofac.

Petrofac declined to comment while KBR did not respond to requests for comment. Both have said they are cooperating with investigators. (Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; Additional reporting by Domenico Lusi in Rome and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Jon Boyle, Catherine Evans and Pravin Char)

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