Jailed ex-governor hid assets in Nigeria's Oando: British prosecutor

Estelle Shirbon
Undated photo released by the London Metropolitan Police, showing the former governor of a Nigerian state James Ibori, who on Monday Feb. 27, 2012, admitted in court to charges of money-laundering, conspiring to defraud and obtaining a money transfer by fraud, officials said.  Ibori pleaded guilty at Southwark Crown Court in London to a series of charges linked to the theft of money from the Delta state and fraud involving state-owned shares in a mobile phone company.  James Whatmore of the Metropolitan Police Corruption Unit said "We will now be actively seeking the confiscation of all of his stolen assets so they can be repatriated for the benefit of the people of Delta state".(AP Photo / Metropolitan Police)
Undated photo released by the London Metropolitan Police, showing the former governor of a Nigerian state James Ibori, who on Monday Feb. 27, 2012, admitted in court to charges of money-laundering, conspiring to defraud and obtaining a money transfer by fraud, officials said. Ibori pleaded guilty at Southwark Crown Court in London to a series of charges linked to the theft of money from the Delta state and fraud involving state-owned shares in a mobile phone company. James Whatmore of the Metropolitan Police Corruption Unit said "We will now be actively seeking the confiscation of all of his stolen assets so they can be repatriated for the benefit of the people of Delta state".(AP Photo / Metropolitan Police)

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) - Jailed former Nigerian oil state governor James Ibori hid some of his assets in the oil firm Oando and money passed from the company's accounts to Ibori's Swiss accounts, a British prosecutor told a court on Monday.

Ibori, who governed Delta State from 1999 to 2007 and influenced national politics, was jailed for 13 years in Britain after pleading guilty in February 2012 to 10 counts of fraud and money-laundering worth 50 million pounds ($79 million).

One of the biggest embezzlement cases seen in Britain, the successful prosecution of Ibori was also a rare example of a senior Nigerian politician being held to account for the corruption that blights Africa's most populous country.

A three-week confiscation hearing began at London's Southwark Crown Court on Monday during which prosecutors will present evidence of Ibori's assets and seek court orders to have them seized. Defense lawyers will dispute the prosecution case.

Prosecutor Sasha Wass told the court she would be presenting evidence that Ibori had "asserted ownership of a large part" of Oando, Nigeria's biggest home-grown oil firm which is listed in Lagos, Johannesburg and Toronto.

"The Crown will assert that Oando is a company where James Ibori has hidden assets," Wass said, giving no further details.

The matter was raised briefly as part of an initial discussion of various aspects of the confiscation hearing. Details are expected to be disclosed later in the proceedings.

Oando is not a party to the case, although British lawyer Andrew Baillie was in court representing the firm's interests.

"It is unfortunate that our client has been dragged into these proceedings. There is no suggestion from the prosecution of any wrongdoing or involvement in wrongdoing on the part of Oando," Baillie told Reuters outside the courtroom.

$15 MILLION IN CASH

At the time of Ibori's sentencing in April 2012, Judge Anthony Pitts said the 50 million pounds that he had admitted to stealing may be a "ludicrously low" fraction of his total booty, which could be more than 200 million pounds.

The confiscation hearing will shed further light on the scale of Ibori's wealth and determine whether he emerges from jail impoverished or still in possession of a large enough fortune to regain a position of influence in Nigeria.

Wass said Nuhu Ribadu, ex-boss of Nigeria's anti-graft agency EFCC, would testify later in the hearing. He alleges that in 2007, Ibori tried to stop EFCC investigations into his affairs by offering Ribadu a bribe of $15 million in cash.

Ibori, who is at Long Lartin maximum security prison in central England, could be released as early as 2016 because he spent two years in custody before his sentencing and because he will be eligible for parole halfway through his prison term.

He was not in court on Monday and his lawyer Ivan Krolick said Ibori did not wish to attend the confiscation hearing although he would come to court to give evidence if necessary.

In May, the Court of Appeal had rejected Ibori's appeal against the length of his sentence.

During his sentencing hearing, the court heard Ibori had acquired six foreign properties worth 6.9 million pounds, a fleet of luxury cars including a Bentley and a Maybach 62, and that he had tried to buy a $20-million private jet. His three daughters were attending a private school in rural England.

British authorities hope Ibori's case may stop corrupt Nigerian politicians looking to Britain, Nigeria's former colonial ruler, as a place to spend money on houses, luxury goods or private education for their children. ($1 = 0.6303 British pounds)

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)