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Sunday, 22 March 2009

Sani Abacha loot: Swiss bank censured

By Julcit Sanda

Judge signs Mohammed's discharge warrant The Swiss Federal Banking Commission, Switzerland's banking watchdog, yesterday reprimanded the country's largest bank, UBS, following the discovery of $60 million in an account linked to the family of the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha earlier this year.

The commission said in a statement that its investigation had found that UBS had not done enough to identify the account holders and beneficiaries under Swiss anti-money laundering regulations.

The two beneficiaries, who used fake names, have since been found to be Abacha's sons, according to officials.

The regulator ordered the bank to submit to an independent on-site audit of its application of due diligence standards next year.

"The Federal Banking Commission concluded from its investigations that UBS had failed to fulfil its duty to collect detailed information and review the economic background for unusual business relationships, in connection with the opening of the account in 1996," the statement said.

It also found that UBS "did not conduct its search for potential business links to the Abacha family with due care and diligence".

UBS announced in February that it had discovered the account opened by a British client with Nigerian business partners, more than three years after high-profile legal action had been launched to seize hundreds of millions of dollars of Abacha assets held in Switzerland.

In April, Nigeria reached a landmark deal with Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein on the restitution of more than one billion dollars embezzled by the Abacha family and deposited in European banks. In all, Switzerland returned about $615 million.

The deal will, however, give the Abacha family freedom from prosecution in matters related to the looted funds. Although it is not clear if the deal will affect other criminal charges against the family, the Supreme Court last week ruled that Mohammed Sani Abacha has no case to answer concerning the assassination of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, wife of winner of June 12, 1993 election, Chief M.K.O. Abiola.

In a previous inquiry two years ago, the Federal Banking Commission condemned six banks, including Credit Suisse, for ignoring money-laundering rules when they handled funds embezzled by the Abacha clan.

But its investigation at the time did not find flaws or wrongdoing at UBS.

Last week the Federal Banking Commission boosted its anti-money laundering guidelines by ordering banks based in Switzerland to conduct their own investigation of old and new business relationships which "involve increased levels of risk".

"This means that banks will not be allowed to rely entirely on information supplied by other clients, but must instead examine such statements critically and verify them through their own investigations," it added.

Hans-Peter Bauer, risk operations director at UBS, said yesterday that the bank's policy was clear.

"The bank wants to avoid this kind of dubious relationship under any circumstance."

UBS took on the account on behalf of a corporate client in 1996 when it was backed by a long-standing and respected British customer, according to the regulator.

It found that UBS had simply relied on the customer's declaration that his two Nigerian partners were not "politically exposed persons".

After the account was opened, it was credited with transfers from banks in Germany, Jersey and Kenya, but there were no transactions after 1999.

UBS conducted three sweeps of its accounts for Abacha-related deposits between 1999 and 2001, but failed to find anything because the bank "did not know the names of everyone in Abacha's entourage" and its electronic archiving was flawed, the regulator said.

The Banking Commission acknowledged that UBS had since made significant efforts to strengthen its internal procedures, but their effectiveness would be subject to a Commission audit in 2003.

Meanwhile, the discharge warrant guaranteeing the Supreme Court's ruling that Mohammed has no case to answer in respect to Kudirat's assassination was yesterday signed and dispatched.

The discharge warrant with appeal No. SC.290/2001, signed by Hon. Justice Salihu Modibbo Alfa Belgore who declined the lead judgment, was addressed to the "keeper of the prison at Federal Prisons, Kuje F.C.T. Abuja".

The warrant commanded the prisons officials to "discharge the said Mohammed Sani Abacha, so committed, unless he shall be in your custody for any other cause".

Mohammed also yesterday brought an application for bail before the High Court in Abuja concerning an allegation of looting government funds, which is also a criminal charge.

Mohammed and his brother Abba were present in the heavily guarded courtroom yesterday though the court did not sit.

The criminal proceedings lying against Mohammed and his business partner, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu were brought on 111 count charges relating to financial crimes. These offences are bailable unlike the murder charge for which he was released last week.

The charge sheet, with no. FCT/HC/M/1685/2000 accused Mohammed and Bagudu of "dishonestly receiving stolen property worth millions of pounds and dollars, property of the Federal Government on or about the 6th of January 1998 to 17th August 1998, and voluntarily assisting in concealing stolen property, of the same sum, which you had reason to believe the same to be stolen property."

Mohammed and Bagudu were said to have used a foreign company to dupe the Federal Government, contrary to the provisions of Decree 53 of 1999.

When the case came up yesterday, neither the trial judge nor the counsel to the federal government were in court, leading to its adjournment to the new date.

Counsel to Mohammed, Mr Bala Ibn-Na'Allah, however, told journalists that the adjournment was caused by the appeal that was pending on the matter.

He said that the accused had gone to the Court of Appeal to seek a proper interpretation of the Decree, adding that the court had not sent back its interpretation to the lower court.

He said that interpretation was central to the suit before an Abuja high court and that Mohammed was still being held by the government because of the charges.

Na'Allah said that he would apply for Mohammed's bail when the record of proceedings of the recent Supreme Court judgment on Abacha was before the trial court.

It will be recalled that Mohammed was discharged and acquitted by the Supreme Court on Thursday last week on charges that linked him with the murder of late Mrs Kudirat Abiola.

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