Unaoil manager Salman Ahsani’s one-year prison sentence for bribery shows the limits of the justice system

Gone were his pleas of innocence. Instead, the court heard how Ahsani became an FBI whistleblower after admitting to being at the center of a “pervasive and far-reaching criminal enterprise” that enriched “corrupt government officials” in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

Presenting their case, US prosecutors Judge Andrew Hanen stated that Unaoil’s rampant corrupt behavior “has come at the expense of citizens whose countries have been destabilized by this corruption.”

“Bribery is part of the game.”

The Unaoil whistleblower

“[Saman Ahsani] have been doing it over and over again for years in country after country and deal after deal,” prosecutors said in court.

Hanen said Ahsani’s relatively light sentence — he was also fined $1.5 million ($2.12 million) — reflected the Unaoil board’s decision to “take numerous risks to protect the US.” to assist” to examine the role of the company’s multinational corporate clients in financing bribes.

But just as the Ahsanis’ public relations advisers had landed their attempt to restore the reputation of the world’s most influential newspaper, an anonymous anti-corruption investigator investigating the Unaoil case promised Saman Ahsani’s ability to get a lighter sentence Land America revealed how money and influence can tip the scales of justice.

Although it was never mentioned in his US sentencing hearing, law enforcement officials have confirmed that the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO), in conjunction with the Australian Federal Police, had originally given the Ahsani a minimum 10-year sentence in an English prison -Trio.

“We’ve wanted to put them away for years,” a source said.

There was a wealth of evidence of bribery to suggest this was a feasible outcome.

2016, Age and the herald revealed the key contents of hundreds of thousands of leaked Unaoil emails – many written in code – that showed the company acting as a global bagman for dozens of large companies.

The emails labeled millions of dollars in bribes as “holidays”, gave corrupt politicians and middlemen aliases like “the doctor” and “Mr. Lighthouse,” and complained about greedy officials wanting bigger bribes. The emails also revealed how Leighton’s multi-billion dollar contracts in Iraq were allegedly won through bribes.


But Saman Ahsani and his family had a plan to avoid or minimize jail time.

According to a recent UK inquiry into the SFO’s handling of the Unaoil scandal, the Ahsanis hired a former US law enforcement officer-turned-fixer to advise them and went on a sort of criminal justice quest.

The fixer attempted to influence the British agency’s case by negotiating directly with the head of the SFO, Lisa Osofsky, herself a former American official. The investigation was devastating for Osofsky because of her dealings with the Ahsani middleman.

If the Ahsanis had landed in Australia, they would have faced charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and faced lengthy prison terms.

They eventually decided that the American system offered the best chance of avoiding serious penalties.

Court filings and briefings from law enforcement officials have confirmed that Saman and Cyrus struck a deal with US authorities behind the backs of their British counterparts and became informants for the FBI.

This decision has enabled the US government to force several multinational companies to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for their roles in the international bribery conspiracy.

Sources have said Cyrus Ahsani could also play a key role in the ongoing prosecution of former Leighton executives in Australia.

But the Ahsanis’ US deal also gave Saman the best shot at a lesser sentence. Unsealed DOJ documents describe how the US DOJ reached an agreement with Ahsani lawyers not to fight aspects of Saman’s case for leniency.


Cyrus Ahsani faces a conviction later this year. Ata Ahsani avoided jail time and was fined $2.5 million ($3.5 million) as part of his US plea deal. Several of the UK’s prosecutions against Unaoil fixers have also collapsed due to the SFO’s failings, which were exposed by the subsequent inquiry.

AFP may be the only law enforcement agency to provide a substantive jail finding in the Unaoil scandal. The trials of the ex-Leighton accused are still at an early stage and a jury may yet find the accused Australian executives not guilty.

AFP currently has several large ongoing anti-foreign bribery cases on its books, but most of these have been hampered by investigators’ difficulties in uncovering offshore corporate crime and dealing with companies backed by top-notch law firms.

The whistleblower who helped this imprint expose the Unaoil scandal and the downside of the global oil industry in 2016 was mixed about Saman Ahsani’s conviction. Some time in a prison cell is better than none, he said.

But he also described how the American justice system’s message to the world was that “bribery is part of the game.”

“That’s why Saman Ahsani was given a light sentence,” he said.

Nick McKenzie was the reporter who led the team that exposed the 2016 Unaoil corruption scandal. Do you know more about corruption? Contact nickmckenzie@protonmail.com

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Callan Tansill

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