PARIS (AP) — A French court on Monday acquitted oil giant Total SA, its chief executives and a raft of former French officials of corruption-related charges linked to the scandal-ridden U.N. oil-for-food program for Iraq.
The across-the-board acquittal in the high-profile case came after a decade-long French investigation — and despite widespread international accusations that the U.N. program was rife with corruption and was thwarted to benefit Saddam Hussein's government.
The Paris prosecutor's office says everyone facing trial in the French case was acquitted Monday by a Paris court. Prosecutors have up to 10 days to appeal.
Defendants included Total SA, its CEO Christophe de Margerie, former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, former French diplomats and others. Investigators accused them of getting around a U.N. embargo against Iraq by buying Iraqi oil through front companies, allowing Saddam's government to raise money illicitly.
Total insisted it was operating according to the rules of the U.N oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq, while under U.N. sanctions, to sell oil in exchange for humanitarian goods from 1996 to 2003.
The program was designed to help Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions, but authorities said the program was corrupted because Saddam was allowed to choose the buyers of Iraqi oil and the sellers of humanitarian goods.
A sweeping U.N. investigative report in 2005 alleged many kickbacks in the lucrative contracts linked to the program. The report said that Pasqua, for example, was allegedly awarded 11 million barrels of oil. Pasqua denied receiving it.
The French investigation was opened in 2002 on the basis of suspicious funds transferred from 1997 to 2001 between Total subsidiaries and companies based abroad.
After years of investigation, prosecutors in the French case had argued that the case be dropped, saying investigators had failed to uncover enough hard evidence for a conviction.
Pasqua and two former high-ranking diplomats were accused of influence trafficking and corruption. De Margerie, Total's chief, was accused of "complicity in the abuse of company assets" and "complicity in corrupting foreign officials."
A lawyer for the oil company, Jean Veil, drew wry smiles when hailing the "total acquittal" for Total.