October 7, 2013 / 4:33 PM / 4 years ago

UK court to restart $145-million Nigeria asset-confiscation case

LONDON, Oct 7 (Reuters) - A British court hearing in which prosecutors were seeking the confiscation of 90 million pounds ($145 million) in assets they say belong to a corrupt former Nigerian oil state governor ended inconclusively on Monday and will start afresh next year.

James Ibori, who was governor of oil-producing Delta State in southern Nigeria from 1999 to 2007, is serving a 13-year jail sentence in a British jail after pleading guilty in February 2012 to 10 counts of fraud and money-laundering.

Once an influential power-broker at the heart of Nigeria's ruling party, he is by far the most senior politician to be held accountable for the corruption that has blighted Africa's most populous nation and top oil producer for decades.

The confiscation proceedings against him will determine whether he emerges from jail impoverished or still in possession of a large enough fortune to regain a position of influence in Nigeria, where the case is being closely followed.

Ibori will become eligible for early release in March 2016.

In a hearing that began at London's Southwark Crown Court on Sept. 16, prosecutors were seeking a court order to confiscate a long list of assets worth close to 90 million pounds in total.

They were relying on Ibori's guilty pleas as proof that his assets were the proceeds of corruption during his time in office. The defence argued that the guilty pleas did not prove that the assets were benefits of Ibori's crimes.

After three weeks in court, Judge Anthony Pitts said that in order to make an informed ruling he needed a better grip on the evidence underlying the case. He said the hearing should start again from scratch next year, at a date to be determined later.

At the new hearing, which could last months, the prosecution will present evidence it had prepared for Ibori's trial, which was scheduled to start in February 2012 but never took place because Ibori entered his guilty pleas on the first morning.

One of the most contentious issues to emerge during the confiscation hearing was an allegation by the prosecution that Ibori may have hidden assets in Oando, Nigeria's biggest home-grown energy firm. This caused Oando's share price to fall by 20 percent in two days.

Oando disputed the allegation in statements and via Andrew Baillie, a lawyer representing its interests in court. Baillie told the judge on Monday that there was "no evidence of any connection between Ibori and Oando PLC" and asked him to make a formal finding to that effect when the case finally concludes.

The judge gave no indication of whether he would make any such finding. The prosecution has maintained the allegation.

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