Sunday, October 17, 2004

NEW YORK — American prosecutors are considering charges against Benon Sevan, the former head of the U.N. oil-for-food program, who has been accused of accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks from Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Congressional investigators examining suspected corruption in the program said Mr. Sevan’s diplomatic immunity would not prevent an indictment from being issued. Mr. Sevan has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

“We have tried to find out what part he had, and we’ve been working to lift the lid on what he did,” said one official on the House International Relations Committee. “My understanding is that we can indict him without lifting diplomatic immunity. That’s what we did with Noriega.”

Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian leader, was indicted in 1988 by a federal grand jury in Miami on drug trafficking charges. He had allowed the Medellin cartel to launder money and build cocaine laboratories in Panama.

Former officials in Iraq’s state oil company, Somo, reportedly have told investigators reporting to the House committee that Mr. Sevan was “sacked” on Saddam’s orders in 2001 for failing to keep promises to campaign for an end to sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

“The basic understanding of these officials is that Saddam felt short-changed by this guy who took the money but did not deliver,” said one committee staffer.

Mr. Sevan had been scheduled to retire this year until a committee was appointed to investigate the suspicions that he had taken kickbacks from Saddam’s regime. In his native Cyprus last week, he denied that he was running away from his accusers.

“These people are digging, digging. That’s nothing to do with me,” he said. “Cyprus is my home. I’m here because I want to be here. I’ve made my statement and stand by it. It’s not for me to comment on anything else.”

A spokesman for the southern district of Manhattan’s federal prosecutor’s office said it was “too early” to comment on any effort to indict Mr. Sevan. Officials are, however, examining the diplomat’s extensive property portfolio in the United States.

According to records, properties registered in his name include an apartment in Manhattan, a house in the Hamptons on Long Island, a house in the nearby district of Rye and a house on New Jersey’s “Gold Coast.”

The congressional official said: “It’s an issue that he has property in the Hamptons and Manhattan.”

A second congressional official said the United States hoped to recover some of the funds purportedly siphoned off from the now-defunct oil-sales program, which was designed to ease shortages of basic goods in Iraq as a result of the sanctions.

“Our priority is to recover as much money as we can for Iraq, for various reasons, because they need the money. And every dollar they have is a dollar we don’t have to put in there,” the official said.

A CIA report published this month said Mr. Sevan was allocated vouchers by Saddam to sell 7.3 million barrels of Iraqi oil through a Panamanian-registered company.

Quoting “high-level sources,” the report said: “Sevan never received his oil allocation in person. Sevan’s vouchers were always picked up by Fakhir Abdul Noor, an Egyptian now residing in Switzerland and connected to the African Middle East Petroleum Co., who would sign documents on Sevan’s behalf and pick up his allocation.”

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