A major anti-corruption trial brought by the Serious Fraud Office collapsed today following the intervention of the deputy prime minister of Bahrain and sudden withdrawal of key witnesses.
Billionaire Victor Dahdaleh — a Labour Party donor with ties to Tony Blair — was accused of paying more than £35 million in bribes to former managers at Aluminium Bahrain (Alba), the fourth-largest aluminium smelter in the world, in return for contracts worth more than £2 billion.
However, last week the court was told the deputy prime minister of Bahrain wrote to the head of the Serious Fraud Office and to the Attorney General, claiming all the payments made by Dahdaleh had been approved.
Today the Serious Fraud Office, which has been embarrassed by a series of high-profile failures to tackle corruption, withdrew its case after one of its witnesses, former Alba chief executive Bruce Hall, appeared to change his evidence. Accordingly, the jury returned verdicts of not guilty on all eight charges.
Hall was extradited from Australia by the SFO and previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to corrupt. He admitted the charge of being part of a criminal conspiracy with Dahdaleh and then-Alba chairman Sheikh Isa Bin Ali Al Khalifa, a former Bahraini petroleum minister. However, today Philip Shears QC for the SFO said: “I have taken matters up to the highest level at the Serious Fraud Office and consulted the Attorney-General.
“At the commencement of this trial, the SFO was of the view that there was a realistic prospect of conviction in this case, and that the evidence was strong. Two things, in particular, have happened which have led to the prospect of conviction deteriorating in this case. The first of those is that Bruce Hall, a conspirator and significant witness for the SFO, significantly changed his evidence from that contained in his witness statement.”
Shears also told Southwark Crown Court that Mark MacDougall and Randy Teslik, two lawyers acting for Alba who were previously co-operating with the SFO, refused to attend to be cross-examined. It is understood the senior partners at law firm Akin Gump were concerned they would be asked to breach attorney-client privilege.
Shears said: “After careful consideration of all of the circumstances of the case, the Serious Fraud Office has concluded that there is no longer a realistic prospect of conviction in this case and accordingly we offer no evidence.” The news is a fresh blow for the SFO, which in 2006 was forced by Blair to drop a probe into the alleged payment of Saudi bribes by BAE Systems to secure a multi-billion-pound arms contract.
The law enforcement agency is also being sued for £200 million by property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz for a series of alleged injustices relating to his arrest in connection to the collapse of Icelandic bank Kaupthing.