On 30 January 2023, the US District Court in Houston sentenced Saman Ahsani, a British-Iranian consultant whose company, Unaoil, fixed billions of dollars of corrupt energy deals. He was sentenced to just over a year in a US prison bringing a partial close to a bribery scandal that strained US-UK relations and tarnished the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

We have previously reported on the bribery convictions in the Unaoil case being overturned by the UK  Court of Appeal.

In July 2016, the SFO opened an investigation into the activities of Unaoil in connection with the bribing of decision-makers in order to win crude oil export contracts in Iraq worth $55million. Ata Ahsani and his sons, Cyrus and Saman Ahsani, owned and controlled the Unaoil group of companies.

In October 2019, Saman and Cyrus Ahsani struck a plea deal with the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and a decision was taken by the SFO that in those circumstances, it was not in the interests of justice for them to be prosecuted in the UK. Their father and Unaoil founder, Ata Ahsani, has not been prosecuted, having reached a non-prosecution agreement.

At Southwark Crown Court, Ziad Akle, Paul Bond and Stephen Whiteley were convicted of conspiracy to give corrupt payments. Mr Akle was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, Mr Bond three and half years’ imprisonment and Mr Whiteley, three years’ imprisonment. The convictions of all three men were overturned by the Court of Appeal, which heavily criticised the SFO’s conduct. This included the failure to disclose key material and improperly providing David Tinsley, “a fixer” acting on behalf of the Ahsanis, access to the SFO case team, who ultimately engaged with him about the prospect of Mr Akle and another pleading guilty. The SFO failings meant that they did not have a fair trial.

What happened to the Ahsani brothers?

Before a Court in Houston, Texas, on 30 January, Saman Ashani was sentenced to 12 months and one day in a minimum security prison, 12 months’ probation and ordered to pay a $1.5million penalty. As part of the plea deal, the DoJ had agreed not to oppose certain requests for leniency. This was despite US prosecutors describing Ashani as a key player in a “pervasive and wide-ranging criminal enterprise… that had lined the pockets of corrupt government officials” around the world. However, the Court was told he had been an “open book” and had “done everything he can” to assist the US government. 

Cyrus Ashani is due to be sentenced later this year and will no doubt also receive a lenient sentence.

The brothers had been due to be sentenced in October 2019 but the sentencing hearings were postponed on a number of occasions. Both brothers are seen as highly valuable witnesses by the US authorities.

The sentencing of the Ashani brothers will bring a partial closure to the Unaoil scandal. In the UK, the independent review into the SFO failings of the handling of the Unaoil case was published in July 2022. The Attorney General published an update on the delivery of the recommendations in the report in November 2022. A further update on the delivery of Sir David Calvert-Smith’s review into the SFO’s failings in the Unaoil case is imminent.

The leniency of the Ashani sentence imposed by the court in Houston for corporate bribery, with a $1.5million penalty, is in contrast with, for example, the sentence imposed by Southwark Crown Court against Glencore which also admitted wrongdoing and assisted authorities. In that case a total financial penalty of £281million was imposed! 

We leave our readers to ponder on the inconsistency with which authorities and courts seem to be dealing with corporate players in the markets.

Please click here to listen to our podcast on the SFO failings in the Unaoil case.

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