RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Tuesday most of the people detained in a sweeping anti-corruption campaign launched last month have agreed to settlements to avoid prosecution while the rest could be held for months.
In a statement, the public prosecutor said a total of 320 people had been subpoenaed to provide information about alleged graft while 159 remain in detention and “a number” of them have been referred for judicial action.
Saudi security forces have rounded up members of the political and business elite, including princes and tycoons, holding them in Riyadh’s opulent Ritz Carlton hotel on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in what was billed as a war on rampant corruption.
The purge has caused concern about damage to the economy especially among foreign investors the kingdom is seeking to attract to develop its economy away from oil. But the government has insisted it is respecting due process and that the companies of detained businessmen will continue operating normally.
The allegations, which could not be verified, include kickbacks, inflating government contracts, extortion and bribery.
A Saudi minister told Reuters on Monday that the main wave of arrests was over and the authorities were preparing to channel an estimated $50-$100 billion of seized funds into economic development projects.
The first financial settlements were brokered last week with senior Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, once seen as a leading contender for the throne, being freed after agreeing to pay over $1 billion, officials said.
The public prosecutor said the anti-corruption committee headed by 32-year-old Prince Mohammed, the king’s favoured son also known as MbS, was expected to finish the settlement phase within a few weeks.
“The Committee has followed internationally applied procedures by negotiating with the detainees and offering them a settlement that will facilitate recouping the State’s funds and assets, and eliminate the need for a prolonged litigation.”
Detainees are free to contact whomever they like and to reject any settlement offers, the statement said. Those who sign deals are recommended for pardon and an end to criminal litigation.
People who refuse to settle are referred to the public prosecutor for additional investigation and potential prosecution, the statement said. They can be held for up to six months with the possibility of court-ordered extension.
MbS said in a New York Times interview last month that about one percent of detainees were able to prove they are clean, four percent wanted to go to court and the rest had agreed to settle.
While some individuals have been identified - like Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the kingdom’s best known businessman - most remain unnamed.
A Paris-based French diplomatic source told Reuters at least one of those held at the Ritz is a Franco-Saudi national.
“We were informed by the family of the arrest of one of our compatriots in Saudi Arabia and we asked for information from the Saudi authorities in view of offering consular protection in line with the Vienna convention,” the diplomat said.
The public prosecutor also said the bank accounts of 376 people in detention and others related remain frozen, down from over 2,000 a few weeks ago.
The arrest of royals and top business elite capped a frenetic period of almost three years of growing power by MbS who also oversees the defence and oil strategy.
Critics say the government’s campaign amounts to a shakedown and is aimed at shoring up the crown prince’s power base as he exerts control over the world’s leading oil exporter. The authorities deny those claims.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; editing by Richard Balmforth