An Italian appeals court yesterday overturned jail sentences handed down to a Nigerian, Mr. Emeka Obi, and an Italian, Mr. Gianluca Di Nardo, for their alleged role in the corruption trial case involving Eni and Shell over Nigeria's Oil Prospecting Lease (OPL) 245.
The long-running case revolves around 2011 purchase by Italian oil company Eni and Anglo-Dutch peer Royal Dutch Shell of Nigeria's OPL 245 offshore oilfield for about $1.3 billion.
Obi and Di Nardo were in October 2018 found guilty of international corruption for their role in the deal and each given four-year jail sentences.
Milan prosecutors had alleged that bribes totalling about $1.1 billion were paid to win the licence to explore the field which, because of disputes, has never entered into production.
The main trial, which besides Eni and Shell, also involved Eni CEO, Claudio Descalzi, and four ex-Shell managers, including former Shell Foundation Chairman, Malcolm Brinded, is expected to drag on for months.
But Obi and Di Nardo, accused of being middlemen and taking illegal kickbacks, had asked for a separate fast-track trial which, under Italian law, allows sentences to be cut by a third.
Shell had argued that neither Obi nor Di Nardo worked on behalf of the company.
The court had in March discharged and acquitted Shell and ENI, saying they were not guilty of the charges.
During the trial, Eni had also reiterated it had acted correctly in the purchase of OPL 245, saying it worked directly with the Nigerian government.
The Milan judge had ordered the seizure of $98.4 million from Obi and more than 21 million Swiss francs ($21.9 million) from Di Nardo.
Prosecutors had alleged that Obi received a mandate from former Nigerian oil minister, Mr. Dan Etete, to find a buyer for OPL 245, collecting $114 million. Di Nardo, they said, took $24 million of that amount for putting Obi in touch with Eni.
But in a decision taken yesterday behind closed doors, which was read out to reporters afterwards, the three judges quashed the convictions and said there was no case to answer.
The three judges also lifted orders seizing assets worth $98.4 million from Obi and more than 21 million Swiss francs ($23 million) from Di Nardo.
The prosecution itself had asked for the sentences to be overturned after a court in March acquitted the two energy groups in a long-running case revolving around the acquisition of a Nigerian oilfield for about $1.3 billion.
The judges dismissed the charges against the companies and defendants saying there was no case to answer.
Obi and Di Nardo were convicted in a fast-track trial back in 2018 separate from the main one. They were both sentenced to four years in jail but had not started to serve them.
Under Italian law a fast-track trial, which is based only on documents with no hearings or witnesses, allows sentences to be cut by a third.
"An unjust sentence by the court of first instance conditioned by a macroscopic violation of the law," Obi's lawyer, Mr. Roberto Pisano, said, referring to the original conviction.
Earlier this month Italy's justice ministry had ordered an inquiry into the conduct of two prosecutors in the main case involving Eni and Shell.