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OPL 245: Mysterious briefcase can finally be opened

The mysterious suitcase can finally be opened. For years prosecutors in the Netherlands and Italy have been waiting for a suitcase full of potentially incriminating documents about the involvement of the Shell and Italian oil companies Eni in a corrupt oil deal in Nigeria. The suitcase was seized by accident in Geneva in April 2016 and has since been the subject of a large number of legal proceedings.

They are now over, according to a judgment published this week by the federal court in Geneva. Both the Italians and the Dutch Public Prosecution Service therefore have access to the case, the Swiss public prosecutor tells NRC .

The suitcase is owned by the Nigerian businessman Emeka Obi, who mediated for years between the Nigerians on the one hand and Shell and Eni on the other. In the case: confidential papers, an external hard disk, USB sticks, British and Nigerian passports and a laptop. In total, it would concern around four hundred thousand (digital) documents, of which an important part relates to the mega-oil field OPL245, off the Nigerian coast.

The case was actually bycatch. In April 2016, the Swiss police raided a capital apartment in Geneva in connection with an investigation into a controversial banker of Credit Suisse. The apartment was owned by a former colleague of that controversial banker, Frenchman Olivier Couriol, who also worked for Credit Suisse in the past. Couriol’s name subsequently appeared in various international corruption cases, but had not previously been associated with OPL245.

Biggest corruption case ever

Shell and the Italian concern Eni acquired the rights in 2011 to be allowed to exploit this field for 1.3 billion dollars. But in the years that followed it became clear that a large part of that amount ended up with Nigerian politicians and officials. The enormous amount makes this the largest corruption case in Dutch history.

The possible bribe payments around OPL245 are now being litigated worldwide. The main proceedings are in Milan, where the flamboyant Italian public prosecutor has sued Fabio di Pasquale Shell, Eni and various senior managers of both companies for corruption. This case has been publicly dealt with since the beginning of this year at the court in Milan . The first judgments are expected in the spring of 2020.

The Dutch Public Prosecution Service is not nearly that far yet. Although the Functional Prosecutor charged with fraud is preparing a criminal case against Shell, the investigation is extremely difficult. Research by NRC showed before the summer that the Dutch criminal case has largely come to a halt due to Shell’s appeal to the internal law of its internal lawyers. As a result, the OM would not be allowed to use many of the documents it found in a raid on the Shell head office in The Hague in 2016.

International legal battle

The briefcase could change this, but the Dutch Public Prosecution Service does not want to say whether and how the content will work.

But the OM really wants the suitcase. The Swiss verdict published this week shows that the Dutch people joined the international legal battle for the suitcase a year and a half ago. On May 15, 2018, the Netherlands made a request to the Swiss to be allowed to add the contents of Obi’s suitcase to the file, according to the judgment. The Dutch thereby joined the Italian prosecutor Di Pasquale, who hopes to find new or additional evidence in the suitcase of intermediary Obi of the involvement of Shell and Eni in the corruption affair.

The fact that it took so long has to do with all the proceedings brought by the lawyers of Obi against the Swiss authorities. According to them, the opening of the suitcase, which Obi said he left behind with Couriol when he went on vacation, would seriously violate the privacy of the Nigerian. After more than three years of litigation, that argument has now been definitively dismissed by the judges in Geneva.

According to those involved, the contents of the suitcase were shipped directly to Milan, where the prosecutors and the dozens of lawyers involved will be considering in the coming weeks what documents will be used to supplement the ongoing criminal case. He is therefore delayed by a few weeks.

In recent weeks witnesses have been heard in Milan, including from Shell. Shell director Maarten Wetselaar, a rising star within the oil company, is also on the list of witnesses to be heard. Shell has nominated him, but he may not have to appear in Milan due to time constraints. His name appears in various places in the file of the Italians, because as financial division director he was involved in starting negotiations with the Nigerians. Lawyer is not a suspect in the case.

Appeal

For Obi himself, releasing the suitcase is bad news. The Nigerian, whose full name is Chukwuemeka Zubelum Obi, was sentenced in Milan last September to four years in prison for involvement in the scandal. Obi opted for a quick trial, because there was a reduction in punishment and because the contents of the case were unknown at that time. That will now play a role in the appeal.

It is the second time that actions by Obi can have major consequences for the corruption affair. The first time was in 2013, when the Nigerian filed a lawsuit in London because he felt he had been paid too little for his mediation in the sale of OPL245 to Shell and Eni.

Obi demanded 200 million dollars in London from Nigerian former minister Dan Etete, who formally owned OPL245. He won the court case, but heralded his own fall. The lawsuit attracted the attention of a number of British and Italian NGOs and ultimately the prosecutors in Italy and the Netherlands.

SOURCE

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