Take Your Time, Unaoil Jurors Told As Bribery Trial Resumes

By Christopher Crosby
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Law360, London (May 13, 2020, 3:02 PM BST) -- The trial of three men accused by British prosecutors of bribing an Iraqi public official resumed Wednesday after a two-month hiatus, with a judge telling jurors as they prepare to retire to take their time because "justice cannot be done in haste."

Judge Martin Beddoe has reconvened the corruption case brought by the Serious Fraud Office in what is one of the first criminal trials to restart in England after mass closures in March.

Two of the defendants, Ziad Akle and Stephen Whiteley — former executives at Unaoil, an oil and gas consultancy — have been excused from attending the trial because of their health. Judge Beddoe advised jurors not to draw a negative inference.

"Neither are absent due to indifference," Beddoe said, adding that it would "not be reasonable" to expect them to attend Wednesday's hearing, which took place at the Old Bailey, although the trial has been heard at Southwark Crown Court.
 
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.

Jurors had listened to months of testimony and reviewed emails going back years when Judge Beddoe adjourned the case amid the coronavirus crisis, days before the head of the judiciary officially halted all trials.

The case is subject to shorter hours to avoid rush hour, and social distancing measures inside the court led to a brief delay to the start of the proceedings.

As a result, Judge Beddoe said it might take jurors longer than normal to review the evidence. But he said they should not feel under pressure to return a verdict and to take as much time as needed.

"Justice cannot be done in haste," Judge Beddoe said.

The judge reminded jurors that there were no eye witness or direct evidence of a conspiracy, although he said that prosecutors were likely to argue that the emails between the defendants were all the proof they needed.

A lack of direct evidence isn't uncommon in conspiracy cases, which rely on circumstantial evidence, Judge Beddoe told the jurors.

"You must decide which evidence is reliable and which is not," he said. 

Jurors aren't expected to retire for a week or more as the case slowly resumes with closing arguments and jury instructions.

The jury of five men and seven women heard Wednesday that their iPads, which they use to review evidence, had been wiped clean for germs. Judge Beddoe also asked jurors to speak up if they felt uncomfortable with the arrangements.

Social distancing guidelines were enforced during security check-in at the Central Criminal Court, with hand sanitizer available at the entrance.

Prosecutors claim that 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 for projects to overhaul the country's infrastructure following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

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, including Paul Bond, a Unaoil client, are accused of working alongside Unaoil Ltd.'s Iraq partner, Basil Al Jarah, who pled guilty to five charges of conspiracy in July 2019. Prosecutors for the SFO contend that Al Jarah and others bribed public officials to land a £555 million ($680 million) contract for Leighton Contractors Singapore for a project to build two oil pipelines in Iraq.

Akle, Unaoil's territory manager in Iraq, has been charged with three offenses. Bond, who worked for SBM Offshore, 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 of 2 Bedford Row, 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.

--Additional reporting by Richard Crump and Bonnie Eslinger. Editing by Ed Harris.

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

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