Total bribe probe restricts CEO's contacts in Iran

23rd March 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 22, 2007 (AFP) - A French judge has banned the head of oil group Total from meeting former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as part of a probe into suspected bribes, a legal source said on Friday.

PARIS, March 22, 2007 (AFP) - A French judge has banned the head of oil group Total from meeting former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as part of a probe into suspected bribes, a legal source said on Friday.

The judge placed Total chief executive Christophe de Margerie under formal investigation late on Thursday after detaining him overnight on suspicions the group had paid bribes to win a big gas contract in Iran in 1997.

Under the terms of a judicial control order, Margerie, who was head of Total's operations in the Middle East at the time, was also banned from meeting Rafsanjani's son and several other leading Iranian figures, the source said.

The name of the former Iranian president's son, Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, has come to the attention of the judge, Philippe Courroye, through a probe by Norwegian authorities into Norwegian national oil company Statoil.

Total denies any wrongdoing.

Under the conditional release order, Courroye left Margerie free to fulfil his function chief executive, a post he has held since only February.

Margerie, already under investigation over the Iraq "oil-for-food" bribes scandal, was told formally late on Thursday that he was under investigation on suspicions of "corruption of foreign public agents and misuse of corporate assets," a judicial source said.

The French oil company is suspected of paying top Iranian officials nearly 100 million Swiss francs (60 million euros, 80 million dollars) through two Swiss bank accounts to win a contract for the South Pars offshore gas field in 1997.

Four other serving and former Total executives were also detained on Wednesday but later released.

Being placed under judicial investigation by an investigating judge is one step short of being charged with a crime in the French legal system.

It gives suspects access to accusations against them, but the procedure does not necessarily mean that 55-year-old Margerie is heading for trial.

A case can be dropped if evidence does not justify charges.

Total expressed "its full support for its employees and confirms that the agreements for the development of the South Pars project were entered into in compliance with applicable law."

The company was "confident" that the "investigation will establish the absence of any illegal activities."

The suspicions centre on a contract Total won from the Iranian oil company NIOC for the South Pars field.

The investigating magistrate is relying partly on allegations in testimony by an employee of Norwegian oil company Statoil who revealed the existence of a corruption system in Iran during an investigation in Norway.

According to sources, money was allegedly paid to Iranian officials between 1996 and 2003 when Margerie was Total's Middle East director.

Last year, Courroye put Margerie under investigation for complicity with fraud and corruption in a probe into a French link to the "oil-for-food" scandal in Iraq.

Companies were alleged to have paid money to obtain oil deals from Iraq while it was under UN sanctions during the Saddam Hussein years.

Several other Total executives and former executives have also been put under formal investigation as part of the "oil-for-food" scandal.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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