By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - The chairman of Bahraini aluminum smelter Alba told a London court on Thursday that lawyers from a top British firm had sought to intimidate him before he gave evidence in a major criminal corruption trial.
Mahmood Al-Kooheji also said a Bahraini lawyer had asked the Bahraini government to use political influence to derail the British trial, citing the shelving of a separate British probe into alleged corruption in Saudi Arabia as a precedent.
Al-Kooheji was appearing as a witness at the trial of Victor Dahdaleh, a British-Canadian businessman accused of paying over $65 million in bribes to former Alba managers in return for a cut of contracts worth over $3 billion.
Dahdaleh, 70, has pleaded not guilty to eight charges brought by Britain's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) related to events between 1998 and 2006 at Alba, the world's fourth-largest aluminum smelter.
The sums involved make it one of the biggest bribery trials seen in Britain for years. It has particular sensitivity because of allegations of corruption by senior figures in Bahrain being made public at a time of political tension there.
Al-Kooheji told the court he had a meeting in London on April 4, just four days before the trial was due to start, with Dahdaleh and three of his lawyers from the prestigious law firm Allen & Overy.
"It was very clear to me that they came to the meeting wanting to pressurize me and influence what kind of testimony I will give here," he told the court.
"He (one of the lawyers) was telling me what I needed to say and I found that very intimidating," he said.
A spokesman for Allen & Overy said: "Given this matter is currently before the court we are unable to comment."
The firm is part of the so-called "magic circle" of top London law firms.
One of Dahdaleh's bail conditions was that he should not contact any prosecution witness.
As a result of the April 4 meeting, the trial was put back by seven months and Allen & Overy pulled out. Dahdaleh is now represented by another London firm, Norton Rose Fulbright.
Al-Kooheji said the Allen & Overy lawyers had insisted that he should tell the court that he knew the payments that Dahdaleh had made to Alba managers had been authorized by senior government figures.
The witness said he told them that was not correct and he would say no such thing under oath.
Al-Kooheji told the court that two days before the London meeting, he and Dahdaleh's Bahraini lawyer, Qays Zu'bi, had taken part in another meeting with two deputy prime ministers in Manama.
"He (Zu'bi) was suggesting that the Bahraini government could interfere politically to stop the SFO investigation," Al-Kooheji said, adding that this suggestion had been rejected.
Zu'bi did not respond to an email from Reuters seeking comment, and could not be reached by telephone.
Al-Kooheji said Zu'bi had cited as an example the shelving in 2006 of an SFO probe into a huge arms deal between British defense group BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia, officially because of concerns it could harm Britain's security interests.
There was widespread criticism at the time that the true motivation for dropping the corruption case was to protect Britain's commercial prospects in the kingdom.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)