’Femi Asu with agency report
A cloud of uncertainty is hanging over the trial of Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Eni in Italy, scheduled to start on March 5 (tomorrow), over their roles in a $1.3bn deal involving one of Nigeria’s biggest untapped oilfields.
The oil majors are accused of corruption in the 2011 purchase of Oil Prospecting Licence 245, an offshore oil block in Nigeria estimated to hold nine billion barrels of crude.
An Italian judge, Giusy Barbara, ruled in December that the companies, along with present and past executives, would face trial over a $1.1bn bribery scandal in Nigeria.
But Reuters quoted legal sources late Friday as saying the trial would be transferred to another court in Milan, delaying the proceedings.
Three sources said the Milan tribunal informed lawyers earlier last week that the court, which had been due to hear the trial, had too many cases and could not guarantee that it would do so in a reasonable period of time.
The court is expected to set the new trial date on Monday, Reuters quoted sources to have said.
The OPL 245 oil block has been a source of contention for almost two decades.
In 1998, the block was awarded by a former Petroleum Minister, Dan Etete, to Malabu Oil and Gas, which later sold it to Eni and Shell. The deal saw the Nigerian government act as an intermediary between the oil majors and Malabu Oil and Gas, a Nigerian company allegedly controlled by Etete.
Milan prosecutors alleged that bribes were paid to win the licence to explore the field, which has never entered into production.
An international watchdog group, Global Witness, in a statement posted on its website on Friday, said no company as large as Royal Dutch Shell or such senior executives of a major oil company had ever stood trial for bribery offences.
“This trial should be a wake-up call to the oil industry. Some of the most senior executives of two of the biggest companies in the world could face prison sentences for a deal that was struck under their watch,” said Barnaby Pace of Global Witness.
Lanre Suraju, the Chairman of Human and Environmental Development Agenda, a Nigerian NGO, was quoted as saying, “This trial is a clear signal that it is no longer business as usual for oil companies in Nigeria. It’s time justice was served.”
According to the statement, Eni’s current Chief Executive Officer, Claudio Descalzi; the former CEO, Paolo Scaroni, and the Chief Operations and Technology Officer, Roberto Casula, are also standing trial alongside four former Royal Dutch Shell staff members, including a former Executive Director for Shell’s Upstream International operations, Malcolm Brinded, and two former MI6 agents employed by Shell.
It said the prosecution by the Milan public prosecutor was triggered by a complaint filed in Autumn 2013 by Global Witness, the Corner House, Re:Common and a Nigerian anti-corruption campaigner, Dotun Oloko.
“The case against Eni and Shell brought by the Milan Public Prosecutor alleges that $520m from the deal was converted into cash and intended to be paid to then President Goodluck Jonathan, members of the government and other Nigerian government officials.
“The prosecutor further alleges that money was also channelled to Eni and Shell executives with $50m in cash delivered to the home of Eni’s then Head of Business for Sub-Saharan Africa, Roberto Casula,” Global Witness said.
Shell, Eni and their executives have denied all charges.
Shell, in a statement in December, expressed disappointment over the decision by the judge of the preliminary hearing of the Tribunal of Milan in Italy to remand the company for trial for alleged offences related to the OPL 245.
Also, Eni’s board of directors, in a statement on its website, reaffirmed its confidence that the company was not involved in alleged corrupt activities in relation to the transaction.
The Italian inquiry is one of several into the acquisition of OPL 245, including cases in the Netherlands, United States and Nigeria.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission filed corruption charges against Shell and Eni last year, accusing 11 defendants, including Etete, of “official corruption” in connection with the oil block deal.
The EFCC also charged a former Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke, and Etete with money laundering over his receipt of $2.2m in alleged proceeds of the OPL 245 deal.
The Federal Government successfully recovered $85m in proceeds of the deal from the UK. The money had previously been frozen as suspected proceeds of crime at the request of Italian authorities.
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