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Total, former French interior minister acquitted of Iraq oil-for-food charges

A court has acquitted executives and former French officials of corruption charges linked to the UN oil-for-food program in Iraq. The acquittals could bring the conclusion to a French investigation opened in 2002.

Oil barrels in Hamburg await cleaning and re-use, stacked in a huge pile. (Photo via dpa)

Ölfässer

On Monday, the Paris prosecutor's office announced that the court had acquitted everyone facing trial. There is a 10-day period for the prosecutors to consider an appeal.

Jean Veil, a lawyer for the oil company, hailed the "total acquittal" of Total, Europe's third largest oil group by market capitalization.

The across-the-board acquittal in the high-profile case came after a decadelong investigation - and despite widespread international accusations that corruption had permeated the UN program. Defendants had included Total SA, its CEO Christophe de Margerie, former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, ex-diplomats and others. Investigators accused them of getting around a UN embargo against Iraq by buying oil through front companies, allowing Saddam Hussein's government to raise money illicitly.

'Complicity'

Prosecutors had accused Pasqua and two former high-ranking diplomats of corruption and influence peddling. Total chief De Margerie, who headed Total's Middle Eastern operations at the time, faced charges of "complicity in the abuse of company assets" and "complicity in corrupting foreign officials." The Swiss oil trader Vitol had faced charges of corrupting foreign public agents.

According to Total, the company had operated according to the rules of the UN oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq, then under sanctions, to sell petrol in exchange for humanitarian goods from 1996 to 2003. Prosecutors called the program, designed to help Iraqis cope with the UN sanctions, corrupted because it allowed Iraq's regime to choose the buyers of oil and the sellers of humanitarian goods.

A 2005 UN investigation led by former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker alleged several kickbacks in the lucrative contracts linked to the program. The report alleged that Pasqua, for example, had obtained 11 million barrels of oil, though he denied receiving it.

Still, after years of inquiry, French prosecutors had pushed to drop the case, saying that investigators had failed to uncover enough hard evidence for a conviction.

mkg/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)