- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Benon Sevan, the official at the center of the United Nations’ oil-for-food scandal, has broken his silence after an independent inquiry was ordered into charges of multibillion-dollar corruption relating to the program.

Tracked down to a five-star hotel in his native Cyprus, Mr. Sevan said he was being unfairly persecuted and vowed to “talk plenty” once the inquiry panel reports back to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In an emotional exchange Friday, the U.N. deputy secretary-general said he would establish his innocence. “I am going back to America … I am not running away,” he said. “I will talk about this when it’s all over. Please don’t underestimate me.”

Mr. Sevan’s name was among 270 individuals and companies that appeared on a list of recipients who purportedly skimmed at least $9.8 billion from the oil-for-food program. Intended to help the poor and sick of Iraq, it handled nearly $70 billion in funds. Saddam Hussein is said to have granted oil vouchers for personal gain, in exchange for influence and cooperation.

Documents found in the Iraqi Oil Ministry since Saddam’s fall suggest that Mr. Sevan secretly received vouchers to sell 14.3 million barrels of oil, which would have yielded an illicit profit of $3.5 million. Mr. Sevan has consistently denied any wrongdoing. According to U.N. officials, his name could have been taken by a crooked Iraqi government official who wanted to launder his own share of the oil bonanza.

When asked about Mr. Sevan’s whereabouts in recent weeks, the United Nations would say only that he was on holiday, pending his retirement in June at the age of 66. He is due to receive a $100,000 annual pension after serving the United Nations for 40 years.

Now, however, those plans have changed. According to U.N. officials contacted last week, Mr. Sevan will stay in office to cooperate with the investigation led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

In the deal struck with Mr. Annan, Mr. Sevan will continue for the next three months and be paid a token one dollar a year as a consultant, while continuing to enjoy diplomatic immunity.

“We could extend it again, because Mr. Sevan has assured us that he will cooperate fully with the inquiry,” said a spokesman for the U.N. Secretariat in New York.

Mr. Sevan’s office, however, was criticized last week for sending at least three letters to potential witnesses demanding their silence. The letters were unearthed by the U.S. Congress after witnesses to its own inquiry into the oil-for-food debacle suddenly fell silent.

One letter, written in Mr. Sevan’s name, was sent to a consultant to the program who had been identified by congressional investigators as a potential whistleblower. It reminded him that, under the terms of his U.N. contract, he “may not communicate at any time to any other person, government or authority external to the United Nations any information known to them by reason of their association with the United Nations, which had not been made public.”

A congressional investigator said his colleagues had been in contact with the individual for more than a month, but the letter “has chilled his willingness to cooperate” with the investigation.

The United Nations denied that the letters amounted to an attempt to enforce silence.

“It is simply standard legal procedure because we want all relevant documents and information to be collected by the Volcker inquiry, which is the inquiry that has been appointed to investigate these allegations,” the spokesman said.

In Cyprus, Mr. Sevan said that the letters had been sent out while he was in Australia on holiday. “I have never seen them,” he said.

He complained that he had been unfairly portrayed as a jet-setter, on the run from his accusers, after being traced to a luxury beach resort in Queensland, Australia, last month.

“I had one day off last year for my daughter’s graduation. I escaped death by a minute in Baghdad in the bombing of the U.N. building. When I went on holiday, they said I had disappeared, but I had planned it for two years,” he said.

Charles Laurence reported from New York.

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