24 April 2024 | 09:34 PM

Row over witness in MTN bribe claims

Key Takeaways

Turkish cellphone operator Turkcell has accused South Africa-based multinational mobile giant MTN of orchestrating a “cover-up” rather than a credible investigation into claims that the South Africans bribed and influence-peddled their way into Iran in 2005.

The Turkish company said in a statement that MTN is intimidating former employee Chris Kilowan — who is Turkcell’s star witness in a case now before a United States court.

Effectively, this would “cover up facts of the case … and discourage additional witnesses from coming forward”, Turkcell’s lawyers claimed.

MTN, in turn, strenuously denied the claims: “Turkcell’s allegations that MTN is engaged in a ‘cover-up’ are simply nonsense,” it said.

But MTN’s crisis has deepened even further after Kilowan admitted under oath to new, unreported acts of bribery by MTN in Iran.

According to him, the company paid a senior Iranian interior ministry official — a Mr Riahi — a “consultancy retainer” through a sham contract with Riahi’s brother “to assist us in any political, bureaucratic problems in Iran” after the cellular licence was awarded.

Turkcell’s lawyers said Riahi’s retainer was worth $15 000 a month.

This is in addition to Kilowan’s claims that MTN paid a $400 000 bribe to Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Javid Ghorbanoghli, and R1.4‑million to South Africa’s ambassador to Iran, Yusuf Saloojee.

MTN also allegedly paid $2 000 in cash payments to senior Iranian intelligence and communications officials.

Kilowan has claimed that MTN promised Iran it would lobby the South African government to vote in Iran’s favour on nuclear issues and would facilitate a weapons-trade agreement between the countries.

Kilowan has admitted to his role in these activities, but claimed this was under the authority of MTN’s former commercial director, Irene Charnley, and former chief executive Phuthuma Nhleko.

Nhleko, Charnley and Saloojee have denied Kilowan’s claims.

Turkcell is suing MTN for $4.3‑billion. It claims MTN “stole” the mobile licence — initially awarded to a Turkcell-led consortium — through high-level bribery and influence-peddling.

The case is based on Kilowan’s under-oath testimony before a Washington, DC, court and documents and information provided by him.

Kilowan was MTN’s office manager in Iran at the time that the licence was awarded.

MTN is expected to apply to have the case dismissed on technical grounds, but says Kilowan’s claims are “based on speculation, innuendo and hearsay”.

In February, MTN appointed an “independent committee” led by a retired British judge, Lord Leonard Hoffmann, to investigate the corruption charges.

Last week Turkcell’s lawyers wrote to Hoffmann, providing Kilowan’s under-oath deposition but warning of “MTN’s multiple efforts to chill [Hoffmann’s] investigation, to cover up facts of the case by intimidating witnesses, and to discourage additional witnesses from coming forward”.

Turkcell suggested that MTN employees be offered amnesty as an incentive for providing evidence without feeling threatened.

Relying on elements of Kilowan’s court deposition, Turkcell’s lawyers told Hoffmann: “It appears that MTN has chosen to pursue a cover-up, rather than a real investigation. MTN has implicitly threatened any employee that might come forward with corroborating facts.”

Detailing why he believed he was being intimidated, Kilowan told the court how three of his clients had been approached by representatives of MTN to discuss their business with him.

An Iranian client — who also did business with MTN — then called Kilowan: “One of my first clients called me and said that they had a call from MTN, and MTN asked them why are they doing business with me. They asked me to please remove any reference to them from my website.”

A second client of Kilowan’s was allegedly approached in his driveway in the US, and another in Dubai was also called.

Kilowan said he was called by colleagues in Iran: “I was told that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard intelligence people are looking for me in Dubai … Three weeks ago, two gentlemen came to my office in Dubai pretending to be Dubai Chamber of Commerce officials; [they] turned out to be Iranians who wanted to see me.”

He complained that MTN had “leaked” his identity to the M&G in April. At the time, the M&G quoted MTN’s group chief of human resources and corporate affairs, Paul Norman, who said: “We understand that a disgruntled former employee, the former manager of MTN’s Iran branch in 2005, has been providing Turkcell with information.”

After that, Kilowan said his ex-wife was called in South Africa by a woman wanting to meet her, “because they’re investigating me”.

Kilowan said he had received a number of calls from MTN insiders who warned he should be careful because “MTN would have me taken out”.

“Some of my friends in South Africa who are close to the ANC structures, and they are close to Irene [Charnley] and Phuthuma [Nhleko], said to me: ‘Look, you are in danger.’”

Finally, on the day of his deposition in Washington, DC, Kilowan said he was “boxed in” in an elevator lobby at his hotel by two men claiming to be investigators working for MTN.

“They would like to talk to me about my deposition today,” Kilowan reported. “I said to them there was no way I could move, because they were blocking the entrance to the lift lobby. I could not get out of there. So I could only go into the lift.”

In their letter to Hoffmann, Turkcell’s lawyers said: “MTN’s purpose was clear — to prevent Kilowan from testifying and to send the message to any MTN employee or former employee that they, too, are at risk if they should be as brave as Kilowan in providing evidence of what happened.

“To ensure the integrity of your work, we call upon you to immediately and publicly demand that MTN cease and desist from its ­harassment and intimidation of all witnesses to the events, and to offer full and complete amnesty to all current and former MTN employees who have information relevant to your investigation.”

However, MTN chief executive Sifiso Dabengwa said these were “unfounded and sensationalist attacks”.

Referring to the Hoffmann committee, he said: “We are confident that the investigation will determine whether there was any misconduct on the part of the former employee now working for Turkcell [a reference to Kilowan], or by any other MTN employee.”

Although this suggests the committee will focus on Kilowan, MTN’s Paul Norman said Hoffmann’s presence on the committee will bring a “fierce” independence to the process.

He confirmed that the committee includes three nonexecutive MTN board members, but said: “MTN is not dictating the process and timing of this process.”

He declined to describe who had been contacted or whether the committee would consider Kilowan’s deposition, saying only that they were “in the evidence-gathering phase”.

Asked about the committee’s terms of reference, Norman said it was formed “to investigate the circumstances under which MTN obtained the Iranian cellphone licence and to report to the board of MTN”.

The committee is “supported by an international legal team, who are working 24-7 on this inquiry”.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are ours. See our funding sources here: www.amabhungane.co.za/page/sponsors.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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