By Kirstin Ridley
LONDON (Reuters) - The UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) deliberately "weaponised" a U.S.-based fixer in an allegedly improper and unlawful attempt to persuade two defendants to plead guilty before a criminal trial, London's Court of Appeal was told on Wednesday.
A lawyer for Ziad Akle, a former executive of energy consultancy Unaoil, who was convicted of bribery and jailed in 2020, said new SFO disclosures had allowed him to build a picture of the role played by David Tinsley for the first time.
"He (Tinsley) is in the persuasion and manipulation business and the SFO is weaponising him," Adrian Darbishire, representing Akle, told the first day of a one-and-a-half day hearing to challenge his conviction and five-year sentence.
Darbishire accused the SFO of a "deliberate and blanket decision" not to disclose relevant material, which is required by law, undermining Akle's right to a fair trial.
"The approach adopted to this material at trial was without warrant or precedent; it was not 'disclosure' or even 'disclosure by schedule'.
"It was simply non disclosure," he said, noting that SFO's chief investigator had "conveniently" wiped all data from his cellphone by entering the wrong password three times.
The five-year SFO investigation into Monaco-based energy consultancy Unaoil - founded and run by the prominent British-Iranian Ahsani family to help major Western companies secure energy projects in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa over nearly two decades - has proved tricky.
Tinsley, a retired drug enforcement agent who founded Miami-based investigative firm 5 Stones Intelligence, worked for the Ahsanis, who were once the SFO's prime suspects in the case.
But ineffective European Arrest Warrants and extradition hearings, thwarted the SFO's attempts to prosecute them.
Darbishire alleged senior SFO officers - including director Lisa Osofsky - engaged with Tinsley, who promised to try and secure guilty pleas from Akle and a former Unaoil colleague, Basil Al Jarah, although prosecutors should only deal with the legal representatives of defendants.
The SFO also traded the possibility of prosecuting Al Jarah for more serious bribery offences in return for guilty pleas for lesser corrupt payment offences that could also be used against Akle, he alleged.
Michael Brompton, a lawyer for the SFO, said he accepted the SFO had shown considerable "ill-judged" conduct. But he said it was not "egregious misconduct" and noted Akle had engaged voluntarily with Tinsley and decided against pleading guilty.
Tinsley did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The SFO has already been told by two judges to review its contacts with Tinsley while Osofsky has been criticised for ignoring internal warnings about such communications.
Al Jarah pleaded guilty in 2019 to five counts of bribery. Akle, Unaoil's former Iraq territory manager, was one of three men convicted in a London jury trial.
(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)