For their roles as middlemen and for encouraging international corruption, Emeka Obi, a Nigerian, and Gianluca Di Nardo have been sentenced to four years in prison by an Italian judge.

The middlemen were found guilty of corruption offences relating to Shell and Eni’s 2011 deal for one of Nigeria’s most promising oil licences.

According to Reuters, an Italian judge sentenced the two defendants on Thursday in the first ruling on one of Nigeria’s oil industry’s biggest graft scandals.

They were found guilty of international corruption, according to three sources.

Their lawyers have declined to comment.

The case relates to the 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.

Prosecutors in Milan noted that there were allegations of bribes totalling around $1.1 billion said to have been paid to win the licence to explore the field which, because of disputes, has never entered into production.

However, the main trial, according to expectations, will go on for months. The main trial, aside Eni and Shell, also involves Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi and four ex-Shell managers, including former Shell Foundation Chairman Malcolm Brinded.

Obi and Di Nardo had requested for a separate fast-track trial which, under Italian law, allows sentences to be cut by a third.

Speaking on the ruling via an email to SaharaReporters, Barnaby Pace, anti-corruption campaigner at Global Witness, said: “Today sees the first men fall in the murky Malabu scandal. As Shell and Eni’s trial looms, time will tell whether it’s just the middlemen who pay the price for this epic crime against the Nigerian people.

“But one thing is for certain: this judgment will send shivers down the corporate spines of the oil industry — and will surely alarm Shell and Eni employees and shareholders who have been repeatedly told that there was nothing amiss with the OPL 245 deal.”

According to the statement by Pace, the larger trial is remarkable for both, including two of the world’s largest corporations and a number of Eni and Shell’s current and former senior managers.

Those on trial include Eni’s current CEO Claudio Descalzi, former CEO Paolo Scaroni, and Chief Operations and Technology Officer Roberto Casula, alongside four former Royal Dutch Shell staff members, including Malcolm Brinded CBE, former Executive Director for Shell’s Upstream International operations, and two former MI6 agents employed by Shell.

Obi was said to have frequently contacted executives at Eni, attempting to broker the sale of the oil licence from Malabu Oil and Gas, a company owned by Dan Etete, a former Nigerian Oil Minister.

For years, Shell had claimed that it only paid the Nigerian Government for the OPL 245 oil block, but in 2017 Shell admitted it had dealt with Etete who had awarded the OPL 245 oil block to his own secretly owned company, Malabu, while serving as oil minister.

The case against Eni and Shell brought by the Milan Public Prosecutor alleges that $520 million from the deal was converted into cash and intended to be paid to the then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, government officials and other Nigerian government officials.

Prosecutors further alleged that money was also channelled to Eni and Shell executives with $50 million in cash delivered to the home of Eni’s Roberto Casula.

Lanre Suraju, Chairman of Nigerian NGO Human and Environmental Development Agenda, said: "Today’s conviction vindicates what international and Nigerian civil society has claimed for years. OPL 245 was a corrupt deal.”

Antonio Tricarico of the Italian NGO, Re:Common, added: “Milan public prosecutors were right to bravely take Eni and Shell and their top managers to trial in Italy. The time has come that the Italian government, as main shareholder of Eni, considers suspending all those managers involved in the case until the final judgement.

"We hope to see the money from this deal swiftly returned to the Nigerian people,” said Nick Hildyard of Corner House.

Eni and Shell, as well as their managers and other defendants, have denied culpability.

The next hearing for the main trial involving Eni, Shell and 13 people is scheduled for September 26.

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