Geneva opens inquiry into oil-for-food scandal

An Iraqi walks among rows of imported UN flour Keystone Archive

Geneva prosecutors have opened criminal proceedings in connection with the United Nations oil-for-food programme for Iraq.

This content was published on May 4, 2005

The investigation is focusing on the bank accounts opened in Geneva by letterbox companies and intermediaries suspected of money laundering.

Examining magistrate Jean-Bernard Schmid confirmed a report in the newspaper Le Temps that the proceedings, which began in March, followed a French request for legal assistance.

The judge is examining especially closely the flow of money between the oil company Total and offshore businesses which the Iraqi government used as intermediaries.

Several accounts were opened in Switzerland – and especially in Geneva – connected to the UN programme.

The $67 billion (SFr80 million) oil-for-food programme was the UN’s largest aid operation and was designed to let the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein sell limited amounts of oil in exchange for humanitarian goods.

Suspicion of corruption

The inquiry is focusing on accounts opened by two firms suspected of having used letterbox companies to launder illegal commissions.

It will try to establish whether those close to the Saddam regime were involved.

Also coming under the investigators’ microscope are UN and Iraqi officials who are suspected of corruption.

"The deals didn’t take place here," emphasised Schmid. "But some of the money flowed through Geneva."

A few weeks ago the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office also opened an investigation into suspected illegal dealings connected with the UN oil-for-food programme in Iraq.

Swiss involvement

An independent inquiry probing contracts awarded under the programme found that Swiss-based firms had significant involvement in brokering agreements for Iraqi oil.

Switzerland has already fined one unnamed Geneva-based oil trading company for paying kickbacks under the programme.

The most publicised US investigation concerned links between Swiss-based company Cotecna and Kojo Annan, the son of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Cotecna received a $10-million-a-year UN contract in late 1998 to certify goods coming into Iraq under the programme, which began in late 1996 and ended in 2003 with the fall of Saddam’s government.

Investigators concluded that the contract was awarded fairly, but in an interim report they accused Cotecna and Kojo Annan of trying to conceal their relationship after the firm was awarded the contract.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The UN oil-for-food programme ran from 1996 to 2003.
Saddam Hussein is suspected of pocketing more than $5 billion.
Individuals and firms from around 50 countries are suspected of helping the former dictator in return for kickbacks.

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