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Nigeria’s deal to drop Cheney charges called illegal

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Lawyers and media pundits in Nigeria are accusing the government of acting illegally by agreeing to settle criminal bribery charges against Dick Cheney out of court.

Nigeria charged Cheney and applied for an Interpol arrest warrant earlier this month in connection with a $180-million bribery case. Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton, reportedly agreed to pay $35 million to see the charges dropped.

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But Nigeria could see as much as $250 million from the deal, in “the form of a deal to free up Nigerian money that had been locked away in Swiss bank accounts,” The Nation‘s John Nichols reports.

Critics of the deal say it has no basis in Nigerian law, which reportedly does not allow plea deals in criminals cases.

In a letter to Nigeria’s anti-corruption watchdog, Osuagwu Ugochukwu, a prominent lawyer in Abuja, said the withdrawal of charges against Cheney was a breach of the law.

“We know as a point of law that once a criminal charge has been filed in a competent court, issue of penalty of fine is for the courts to impose and not parties,” he wrote. “Hence, we are shocked to hear that EFCC imposed a fine on an accused person. We also know as a point of law that criminal matters cannot be settled out of court as in civil matters in Nigeria.”

“The outcome of the deal with Halliburton tends to suggest a smart way of making quick money while leaving the culprits unpunished,” an editorial in Nigeria’s Daily Sun argues. “This method invariably has its own drawbacks that could encourage similar criminal acts in future.”

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Indeed, many observers have likened the deal to an officially sanctioned bribe by Halliburton — or as a shake-down of the Texas-based oilfield services company by the Nigerian government.

Nigerian officials say they made the deal because they weren’t certain they could get a guilty verdict against Cheney. (KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton, pleaded guilty in a US court to the charges in 2009, but Cheney was not charged in that case.)

And, without addressing the move’s legality, the head of the anti-corruption watchdog agency defended the move, saying that it is a “best world practice” used in more developed countries.

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“The US and the UK governments are practicing it. Where you cannot successfully sustain a charge in court and you want to recover, then instead of losing the case, losing the money, then you opt for plea bargaining,” Farida Waziri, head of the watchdog agency, said, adding that the country’s “slow” judicial system also made the deal necessary.

KBR, until 2007 a subsidiary of Halliburton, was among companies that paid bribes to secure a $6 billion contract for a natural gas plant. The company pleaded guilty to the bribes in a US court in 2009, and agreed to pay a $382 million fine.

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