UK sentences ex-head of Nigerian state to 13 years

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By CASSANDRA VINOGRAD and JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — A former governor of Nigeria's oil-rich Delta state was sentenced in Britain on Tuesday to 13 years in prison for fraud and money-laundering, capping a spectacular fall from flashy political kingmaker to convict.

The sentencing of James Ibori in London culminated years of probes both in London and his native Nigeria, where the ex-governor once held great political sway. But it ultimately took Britain, Nigeria's former colonial ruler, to imprison a corrupt politician from the West African nation where graft dominates politics.

"You turned yourself in short order into a multimillionaire through corruption and theft in your powerful position as Delta state governor," Judge Anthony Pitts said in his ruling at Southwark Crown Court.

Ibori stood accused of stealing $250 million from the public purse and funneling much of the stolen funds to banks in England to fund a lavish lifestyle of private jets and luxury cars. He pleaded guilty in February to fraud and money-laundering sums of approximately 50 million pounds ($79 million).

"During his two terms as governor of Delta State, James Ibori deliberately and systematically defrauded the people whose interests he had been elected to represent," Britain's Crown Prosecution Service said in a statement after the sentencing. "Very significant cooperation was secured from many countries worldwide to enable us to bring this prosecution."

Ibori held great political power in Nigeria before leaving his gubernatorial office. He was a kingmaker in the People's Democratic Party, the ruling political force in Nigeria since the country became an uneasy democracy in 1999 after years of military rule.

The ex-governor's guilty pleas in London capped an inquiry which began in association with Nigerian anti-corruption investigators in 2005. Ibori was immune from prosecution in Nigeria between 1999 and 2007, when he was serving as governor of Delta state, police said.

Ibori contributed his wealth toward the 2007 election of Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua and later served as a trusted confidant to the ill leader, who later died. Anti-corruption officials complained to Western diplomats that the Yar'Adua administration protected the politician from investigations, even after he lost his immunity.

British prosecutors and police have said Ibori used money funneled from the state to buy houses in London and Johannesburg, a fleet of armored Land Rovers, a Jaguar, a Bentley and a $20 million private jet. He racked up credit card bills of $200,000 a month.

Nigeria's main anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, arrested Ibori in 2007, and police in London got a court order to freeze U.K. assets of 35 million pounds which allegedly belonged to him.

In 2009, a Nigerian judge dismissed a 170-count indictment against Ibori for lack of evidence. But that would be the height of his power. When Yar'Adua died in 2010, Ibori saw his influence fade and quickly became a pariah.

The case was reopened in 2010 by Nigerian investigators, but Ibori evaded arrest and fled to Dubai. He was detained there at the request of British police and extradited to London in 2011.

British prosecutors said that after two years and nearly 60,000 pages of evidence, the next step in Ibori's case will be to enable the courts to issue orders confiscating his illegal profits.

Reaction to Ibori's sentencing, while generating talk online, was muted Tuesday in Nigeria, an oil-rich nation where most live in crushing poverty and wearily accept the rampant corruption that chokes government and business. The state-run Nigerian Television Authority ran a news crawl with Ibori's conviction during its Tuesday afternoon broadcast, but did not immediately mention it on air.

Ibori — who prosecutors said is 49 years old, but according to the birth date he used in Nigeria is 53 — was charged in Britain with a string of offenses. Prosecutors have suggested Ibori changed his age in Nigeria to hide previous convictions in the U.K. as the country's constitution bans convicts from holding office.

He had pleaded guilty in February to seven counts of money laundering and one count each of conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to make false instruments and obtaining a property transfer by deception.

Britain's International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said Ibori's sentence "sends a strong and important message to those who seek to use Britain as a refuge for their crimes."

"We are committed to rooting out corruption wherever it is undermining development and will help bring its perpetrators like Ibori to justice and return stolen funds to help the world's poorest."

Human Rights Watch praised the judgment and conviction, noting that Nigerian citizens have seen little benefit from the country's vast oil wealth due to rampant corruption, and nearly 60 percent of the West African nation's population lives on less than a dollar a day.

"The world has just got smaller for government officials who believe they can loot their country's resources with impunity," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This case was not just about financial transactions in British banks. It was about acknowledging global responsibility for helping to stop the devastating human cost of corruption in Nigeria."

British prosecutors had previously won convictions against Ibori's wife, Theresa; his sister, Christine Ibori-Ibie; his mistress, Udoamaka Oniugbo; his lawyer, Bhadresh Gohil; a financial agent, Daniel Benedict McCann; and corporate financier Lambertus De Boer.

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Gambrell contributed from Lagos, Nigeria.

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Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd

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