Swiss prosecutors probing bribery allegations at a Geneva-based unit of China’s Sinopec released a Chinese executive jailed for three weeks after deciding there was no longer a risk the man could collude with others to disrupt the probe.
Zhang Yi, chief executive officer of the unit, Addax Petroleum, was released on Tuesday, his lawyer Saverio Lembo said. A second company executive was freed earlier, said Henri Della Casa, a spokesman for the Geneva prosecutor’s office. The two men paid an unspecified bail, relinquished their passports and were released because there was “no longer a risk of collusion,” Della Casa said in an email.
The pair were arrested on March 20 when Swiss prosecutors raided the Sinopec unit’s offices seeking documents that might shed light on more than $20 million in payments allegedly made to individuals identified as “legal advisers” in Nigeria and the U.S. Those transfers made in 2014 and 2015, plus a separate $80 million paid to an engineering company for Nigerian construction projects, prompted Addax’s auditor Deloitte LLP to resign when it could not obtain ‘ satisfactory explanations’ for the size or reason for the payments, the firm said in a letter filed in December in the U.K.
Lionel Halperin, a lawyer working on the case for Addax, declined to comment, citing the investigation. A Deloitte spokeswoman in Zurich declined to comment beyond what the company said in the Dec. 14 resignation letter.
A Beijing-based spokesman for Sinopec said on March 31 that the company is aware of the Swiss probe and is conducting its own internal review into the matter. Sinopec is “fully committed” to complying with laws everywhere it operates and “guide our subsidiaries and invested companies to uphold the same principles,” the spokesman said.
In February, Addax said in a statement that it “immediately took appropriate action to investigate the matters identified” by the accounting firm. Addax said it had canceled its auditing contract with Deloitte in October and hired new auditors who completed the accounts of its Nigerian and U.K. units “with unqualified audit opinions.”
The two executives were initially scheduled to be held for two months under preventative detention to minimize the risk of flight or, while prosecutors conduct a first round of interviews, to prevent collusion with those not in jail. Under Swiss law, that period can be extended by a tribunal while a defense lawyer can also ask his client’s detention to be shortened.
Lembo said that Zhang is “determined to prove his innocence and contests the accusations made against him.”
Sinopec, known formally as China Petroleum and Chemical Corp., bought Addax in 2009 for about $6 billion to build a corporate presence in Geneva, a commodity-trading hub, and expand its oil production in Africa.
Isle of Man Accounts
Some of the suspect payments were paid from bank accounts in Nigeria and the Isle of Man, according to Deloitte’s letter of resignation. Deloitte couldn’t clearly establish what services were delivered for those payments, it said in the letter.
Deloitte said in the letter it had “received a number of whistleblowing allegations both from within and external to Addax, some of which allege that such payments have been made to bribe foreign government officials and that certain amounts have been embezzled by certain members of management within Addax Petroleum Group.”
Zhang’s name was first reported by the Geneva newspaper Le Temps on March 24.