JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Nigeria has filed criminal charges of corruption against oil multinationals Royal Dutch Shell and Eni over the $1.1 billion sale of one of Africa's richest oil blocks.
Both companies have denied any wrongdoing.
Charges filed at the High Court in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, allege the companies paid $801 million to former Oil Minister Dan Etete, former Justice Minister Mohammed Bello Adoke and businessman Aliyu Abubakar for the license to OPL 245. Nigeria's government got only $210 million from the deal.
"These charges show Nigeria's intention to fight corruption by holding the powerful to account," Simon Taylor of corruption watchdog Global Witness said in a statement Saturday. "The days when oil companies could use their influence to keep backroom deals with corrupt officials under wraps are over."
He said the alleged bribes amount to 80 percent of Nigeria's 2015 health budget.
Nigerian High Court papers stamped Thursday and seen by The Associated Press name the accused as the Nigeria subsidiary of British-Dutch Shell and its ex-director Ralph Wetzels, Italy's Eni, Eni's Nigeria subsidiary Agip and directors Roberto Casula, Stefano Pujatti and Sebastiano Burrafato.
Also charged is Malabu Oil, the company Etete set up secretly and awarded OPL 245 while he was oil minister.
Etete, Adoke and Abubakar, all believed to be living in Europe, could not be reached for comment.
The charges were laid by Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which in January won a court order ceding control of the oil bloc to the government.
The commission also has filed new money-laundering charges against Adoke, alleging he corruptly received an additional $2.2 million in 2013 as payment for brokering the deal.
The oil companies have declared their innocence, saying the money was paid to Nigeria's government. Shell and Eni paid $1.1 billion into a Nigerian escrow account at the London branch of JPMorgan Chase in 2011. Adoke, who was then the justice minister and attorney general, authorized its distribution.
The court document alleged the oil companies and their executives "corruptly gave" the money and "thus committed an offense" under Nigeria's Corrupt Practices Act.
Global Witness said in a statement that "Shell and Eni have always denied that they knew the money would go to Malabu, but documents seen by Global Witness show that the companies constructed the deal knowing that the money would flow ultimately to Etete's company."
Global Witness said the case highlights the need for regulations forcing extractive companies to make public the payments made to governments. President Donald Trump has been expected to overturn such a regulation in the United States.
The scandal around OPL 245 has drawn investigators from the United States, Italy, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Italian prosecutors last month asked for Eni, Shell, Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi and 10 others to stand trial for alleged corruption. Eni said it had investigated the allegations and found "no evidence of corrupt conduct."
Shell has said that it "takes this matter seriously and is co-operating with the authorities."