SFO's Unaoil Bribery Trial Poised To Resume Amid Shutdown

By Richard Crump
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Law360, London (May 4, 2020, 5:46 PM BST) -- The trial of three men accused by the Serious Fraud Office of bribing an Iraqi public official is expected to resume in London next week amid wider efforts to restart jury trials shut down because of concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

Britain's biggest ongoing corruption case became one of the first trials to be halted because of the pandemic when Judge Martin Beddoe suspended the Southwark Crown Court trial in March days before it was due to be completed.

Judge Beddoe said at a video hearing on Monday that "steps are being taken with the ambition of resuming the trial" — which was suspended after all the evidence was heard — at London's Central Criminal Court next week.

Closing speeches will begin when the trial restarts, after which the jury will be sent out to consider its verdict in what could be the most high-profile case to resume since all jury trials were halted in England and Wales following the nationwide lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The move to resume the trial of former Unaoil executives and employees, which began in January, comes amid increasing efforts by the judiciary to begin holding jury trials again when the courts can safely do so.

A working group made up of members of the criminal justice system and legal professions was set up last week to consider plans to resume jury trials while adhering to social distancing and protecting the health and safety of court users.

The group is currently assessing a small number of Crown Courts as potential venues in which to conduct the first jury trials because of their size and design. The results of the assessments will be reported back to the group later this week.

The Unaoil case centers on allegations that the Monaco oil and gas consultancy 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.

Former Unaoil executives Ziad Akle and Stephen Whiteley, and Paul Bond — a former employee of SBM Offshore, which supplies the industry — are charged with conspiring to bribe an agent of an Iraqi state-run oil company responsible for overhauling the country's infrastructure after Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

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.

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 Rebecca Flanagan.

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

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