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UK court exonerates two in Saudi bribery case amid British government approval claims

A UK court has cleared Jeffrey Cook and John Mason of allegations they paid millions in bribes to Saudi officials, with their defence successfully arguing the UK and Saudi governments had approved these transactions.

Accused of facilitating bribes for a Saudi prince and his associates to secure a significant defense contract for a UK firm, Cook and Mason were acquitted by a jury. Their defense pointed out that the payments were known and sanctioned by authorities from both the British and Saudi governments, implicating a range of UK political, official, and military endorsements.

Representing Cook, Tom Allen, KC, emphasised that the UK Ministry of Defence had essentially sanctioned the payments that led to their prosecution, leaving his client exposed. This verdict marks a significant setback for the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), ending a nearly decade-long investigation without a conviction. It also raises major questions about the UK government’s own actions.

The SFO had accused Cook and Mason of orchestrating £9.7 million in payments to ensure GPT Special Project Management continued securing lucrative deals from the Saudi national guard between 2007 and 2010. These payments were allegedly for Prince Miteb bin Abdullah and his circle, aiming to maintain a billion-pound contract under which the UK provided communication systems to the Saudi military unit.

Cook and Mason acknowledged their roles in these transactions but argued for acquittal, citing long-standing government endorsement of such payments to secure contracts over international competitors. They claimed high-level British and Saudi approval, involving senior MoD officials and political figures. The case’s complexity was highlighted when a previous trial was aborted due to the MoD’s failure to disclose crucial evidence.

While Cook faces sentencing for a separate misconduct charge related to receiving kickbacks unrelated to the Saudi contract, the acquittal underscores challenges in prosecuting alleged bribery with government-tied international defence contracts. The SFO initiated its case following revelations by whistleblower Ian Foxley, spotlighting the hurdles faced by legal proceedings in such intricate international dealings.

As Dr Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence said of the events: “The recent acquittal of two individuals accused of bribing Saudi officials for defence contracts, under the assertion that such actions were sanctioned by both the UK and Saudi governments, starkly raises concerns regarding the extent of government collusion in such unethical practices. It underscores an urgent need for transparent and rigorous oversight mechanisms within international defence dealings to safeguard against the erosion of ethical standards and to ensure accountability at the highest levels of government.”