Ex Algerian oil execs on trial over corruption charges

A group of top former Algerian state oil company officials went on trial facing corruption charges

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A group of top former Algerian state oil company officials including an ex-chief executive went on trial on Sunday facing corruption charges in a scandal involving the North African country and foreign suppliers.

The so-called "Sonatrach 1" case is just one graft probe involving the state company and opens at a sensitive time for Sonatrach with oil prices slumping and weak foreign interest in Algeria's recent offers to develop new fields.

State news agency APS said charges against the 19 defendants include granting privileges to third parties, hiking prices of contracts with a state company, embezzlement, money laundering and corruption.

"Justice will be served and the press cannot replace justice," Judge Mohamed Reggad told the court after defence lawyers argued a fair trial would be impossible because of media reports on the case.

Former Sonatrach CEO Mohamed Meziane appeared in the Algiers court wearing a dark coat accompanied by his two sons who APS said were also involved in the investigation.

The state news agency said the trial centres on five contracts between Sonatrach and a local unit of German company involving monitoring equipment and electronic protection services.

Citing a source in the case, APS said an Algerian representative of the German firm is accused of receiving privileges during the bidding process for contracts. In exchange others were given shares in the company, it said.

In a separate investigation, Italian prosecutors last month asked for oil major Eni and its subsidiary Saipem to be put on trial on charges Saipem paid bribes to win contracts in Algeria.

Investigations into allegations the oil service company paid intermediaries 197 million euros ($207 million) to bag contracts worth 8 billion euros with Algerian state-owned energy group Sonatrach were completed in January.

Eni and Saipem have previously denied any wrongdoing. Audits previously carried out by Eni and its 43 percent owned subsidiary Saipem both found no evidence of illegal conduct.

OPEC member Algeria, a top gas supplier to Europe, is trying to draw in more foreign oil operators to help it offset stagnant energy production. But a bidding round last year attracted only 4 offers on 31 fields up for auction. ($1 = 0.9531 euros)