by Odious Debts Online
August 15, 2003
Acres International, an Oakville, Ont.-based engineering firm, lost its appeal today against a bribery conviction in a Lesotho court. Acres had been found guilty of paying an official to win contracts in one of Africa’s largest water supply projects, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. “Lesotho is the very first developing nation to have convicted a western company for corruption,” said Patricia Adams of Probe International, a Toronto-based organization that has been monitoring the case. “Now it is up to the World Bank and western nations, such as Canada, to act on the Lesotho decision by enforcing their own anti-corruption codes.” The Court of Appeal President, Justice Jan Steyn, told the court that Acres International had exploited the massive World Bank-funded scheme, which was meant to help the tiny country develop economically.
“The water project was a visionary initiative to put the country back on the road to economic recovery,” he said. “Its exploitation by the appellant (Acres) was motivated by greed.”
Acres was convicted last September by the Lesotho High Court of paying bribes totalling some US$260,000 to the former chief executive of the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority, Masupha Sole, through their agent, Zalisiwonga Bam. Mr. Sole is now serving a 15-year prison term for receiving more than one million dollars from over a dozen multinational engineering and consulting companies, as well as several intermediaries. Mr. Bam died of a heart attack before he could be questioned. The Lesotho Appeal Court, however, upheld an appeal by Acres against a second charge, in which the company was convicted of paying bribes through the Swiss bank account of Mr. Bam’s wife, Margaret. Because the Appeal Court upheld Acres’ appeal against conviction on the second count of bribery, the court reduced the High Court fine from the equivalent of nearly US$3 million to US$2 million. Ms. Adams wants the World Bank to debar Acres from receiving future bank contracts, as World Bank policy dictates. If it doesn’t, said Ms. Adams, “The Bank will send a signal that multinational corporate officials can bribe Third World officials with impunity and that African countries which attempt to curb corruption are wasting their time and money. Corruption will thrive with renewed vigour if the World Bank backs away from its policy.” Acres had earlier suggested the Lesotho High Court was ill-equipped to hear such a complex case and expected the mountain kingdom’s Court of Appeal, made up of experienced South African judges, would exonerate them.