The leafy western suburbs of Hull are perhaps an unlikely place to be associated with what has been described as the world’s biggest bribery scandal of recent times.
Historically, this was where the city’s great industrialists, bankers and shipping magnates built their homes and laid out their golf courses. More recently, the suburban villages have become popular commuter belt communities, still within touching distance of Hull but also nestling in the relative peace and quiet of the East Riding countryside.
So when a smartly-dressed elderly resident of Swanland, a picturesque village seven miles from the city centre, was recently jailed for three years and four months after admitting paying nearly £14mn in bribes, local heads naturally turned.
The man in question was Basil Al Jarah, a 73-year-old former sea captain who lived in a large detached mock Tudor mansion standing behind electronically operated gates and fronting onto one of Swanland’s main streets.
‘Bag-man’ for Iraqui deals
His conviction at Southwark Crown Court in 2020 related to bribes paid by Monaco-based oil firm Unaoil to secure lucrative contracts in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein. At the time, Al Jarah worked as the company’s territory manager in Iraq. It was said in court that he received £3.3mn for his role as a ‘bag man’ making the deals.
Although he worked across the Middle East, Al Jarah had been a resident of Swanland for around 20 years having previously lived in nearby Hessle and Kirk Ella during the 1980s.
His sentence was reduced because of his guilty pleas. However, three other men charged as part of the same investigation by the Serious Fraud Office eventually had their convictions overturned on appeal having originally denied the charges against them and standing trial.
In all three cases, the Court of Appeal said there had been serious disclosure failures by the SFO during their trials and “inappropriate” contacts between officials at the agency and an American private investigator acting on behalf of the Ahsani family, the Iranian-British clan who own and control Unaoil.
Serious Fraud Office failings
The court’s decision in the third and final appeal case came on the same day last year as a judge-led review into the SFO’s handling of the investigation was published. The report by Judge Sir David Calvert-Smith KC found there had been serious failings by senior officials at the agency.
He concluded that either the Ahsanis or their investigator clearly thought they could “reduce the damage” of a pending plea deal involving family members being probed by American enforcement officials by secretly trying to arrange plea deals for those charged by the SFO in the UK.
Sir David said the investigator secretly attempted to arrange guilty pleas by the four men even though he was not part of any of their legal teams. While his contacts with the accused were known to senior SFO bosses, the independent prosecuting counsel in the case only became aware of his role when Al Jarah entered his guilty pleas to five conspiracy charges.
Director turned FBI informer
In January this year Unaoil director Saman Ahsani was jailed for a year and a day after a court appearance in America, having previously pleaded guilty to charges of facilitating the payment of bribes over a 17-year period, money laundering and destroying evidence to obstruct investigators.
The court heard how he had become an FBI informer after admitting being at the heart of a “pervasive and wide-ranging criminal enterprise” that “enriched corrupt government officials” across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Passing sentence, Judge Andrew Hanen said Ahsani’s relatively short jail term reflected his decision to take on “numerous risks to assist the US” to investigate the role of Unaoil’s multinational company clients in financing the bribes. He was also fined $1.5mn.
Saman’s brother Cyrus, Unaoil’s chief executive, is due to be sentenced in America later this year having entered a similar earlier guilty plea.
Money laundering link
While one has been jailed and another faces prison in America, a third Ahsani brother with a recent business interest just four miles from Basil Al Jarah’s home in Swanland was the focus of a joint investigation by the Guardian newspaper and the BBC’s File on Four radio programme. They examined thousands of leaked documents from an offshore trust known as the Pandora Papers showing how the Ahsani family invested some Unaoil proceeds in what appeared to be classic money laundering operations.
They mapped Unaoil profits being moved through a series of offshore companies before being invested in £200mn worth of property assets across the UK, including a business park in Brough near the Humber estuary.
In particular, the papers documented a £7.5mn investment from the earnings from three British Virgin Island-based companies owned by Ata Ahsani, the father of the three brothers and the founder and owner of Unaoil. The investment appeared to be split between between two Cayman Island-based firms which in turn invested in London-based Lumina Real Estate Capital to help fund an acquisition programme of 18 commercial sites in the UK.
Prince’s interest in Humber project
The 79-acre Humber Enterprise Park was among those snapped up by Lumina, headed by the third Ahsani brother Sassan, in a joint acquisition with Yorkshire property firm Citivale. In March 2017 Prince Andrew was invited to officially open the development created in part of a huge former British Aerospace manufacturing complex, with Sassan hosting the VIP event.
“His Royal Highness was asking whether or not we were the go-to people for these types of projects,” he told a local radio reporter at the ceremony. “You know, I’m not one to brag so I said: ‘Well, you know, we are quite good at this sort of thing.’”
Park changes hands for £18.5mn
The Guardian/File on Four investigation in 2021 found several plots at the site had actually been managed by Lumina Real Estate Capital through a chain of Jersey-based investment firms. By then, however, the business park was in new hands – a year earlier, Lumina’s partnership with Citivale had come to what was described at the time as a “cordial end”. The site having been jointly bought for £10mn in 2014, was now sold to a new partnership between Citivale and a Swiss-based property investment firm for £18.5mn.
Sassan Ahsani was arrested in the early stages of the SFO investigation into Unaoil but was never charged. In a statement released through his lawyers at the time, he said: “The investigation into Unaoil is wide ranging and covers all parties perceived to have a connection to the company. It is unfortunate I have been dragged into this matter and, by association, LRE Capital.
“I understand the investigation must take its natural course and I am confident I will be cleared of any wrongdoing.”
A statement issued by LRE Capital added: “LRE Capital has no connection whatsoever to Unaoil and the board of directors has full confidence in Sassan Ahsani.”
No action on ‘vast’ bribery and corruption network
Ultimately, Basil Al Jarah’s conviction was the only success for the SFO in what turned out to be a calamitous investigation. Campaigner Susan Hawler, executive director for the campaign group Spotlight on Corruption, believes the agency should have done more to probe the proceeds of crime of the Ahsani family in the UK and, in particular, the evidence revealed by the Guardian/File on Four investigation.
Hawler said: “This investigation shows that at least £7.5mn of the suspect proceeds of Unaoil – a company that oversaw a vast bribery and corruption scheme – have been invested in property in the UK through opaque offshore structures. Despite this, we are not aware of any action by UK law enforcement agencies to recover Unaoil’s criminal assets.”
Meanwhile, family head and Unaoil founder and sole owner Ata Ahsani has reportedly reached an agreement with the US Department of Justice guaranteeing that, unlike his two oldest sons, he will not be prosecuted after agreeing to pay a $2mn fine.