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MTN denies bribery of former SA ambassador to Iran

Paula Gilbert
By Paula Gilbert, ITWeb telecoms editor.
Johannesburg, 18 Feb 2019
MTN has once again denied bribery allegations linked to the securing of its GSM licence in Iran in 2005.
MTN has once again denied bribery allegations linked to the securing of its GSM licence in Iran in 2005.

MTN says it has consistently denied there is any credible evidence that it promised former SA ambassador to Iran, Yusuf Saloojee, any money, or that Saloojee accepted money from MTN.

The group was responding to questions from ITWeb after the 75-year-old former ambassador was arrested by the Hawks last Thursday, on allegations of corruption linked to MTN's licence in Iran.

Istanbul-based Turkcell has for years alleged MTN engaged in illicit activity to gain its GSM licence in Iran in 2005. It claims MTN used bribery and corruption to overturn the initial Iranian decision so that the licence was awarded to Irancell, of which the MTN group owns 49%.

MTN has repeatedly defended itself, calling Turkcell's claim "opportunistic, an abuse of the process of court, baseless and without merit".

Bloomberg quoted the South African Police Service (SAPS) saying Saloojee was allegedly involved in facilitating the reversal or cancellation of the operating licence awarded to Turkcell, by the government of Iran, which was later handed to MTN. Saloojee was allegedly paid R1.4 million for his role and used the money to buy a house in Pretoria.

"The allegations against MTN and Ambassador Saloojee appear to be based on the evidence of a single witness, Mr Chris Kilowan, a disgruntled former employee of MTN. His allegations in this regard have been roundly rejected by Lord [Leonard] Hoffmann, an independent and renowned international jurist who investigated the claims of Kilowan and Turkcell in 2013. In his findings, Lord Hoffmann was entirely satisfied that MTN neither promised nor paid anything to Ambassador Saloojee," MTN says.

MTN previously said Lord Hoffmann's "thorough and exhaustive analysis of the investigations" found Turkcell's allegations, which rested entirely upon the evidence of Kilowan, were all 'a fabric of lies, distortions and inventions'; and that Kilowan was shown to be 'a fantasist and a conspiracy theorist'.

"Ambassador Saloojee himself has repeatedly said the money he received from Mr Kilowan was the result of a private loan arrangement as between him and Mr Kilowan, that he has repaid that loan to Mr Kilowan, and that this was a private matter as between the two of them that had nothing to do with MTN or anyone else," MTN told ITWeb today.

MTN says it appears as though Saloojee returned to South Africa on his own accord "as he is determined to clear his name".

Saloojee reportedly appeared in the Johannesburg Specialised Commercial Crimes Court on Thursday and was granted R4 000 bail. The matter has been postponed to 17 April, for representations.

In June 2018, MTN confirmed the Hawks had raided its offices due to the long-running dispute with the Turkish operator. At the time, the telco said the Hawks had visited both MTN and MTN's external legal counsel "to obtain documents relating to aspects of the Turkcell litigation pursuant to MTN's original self-reporting of this matter and the Turkcell complaint".

Long-running case

Turkcell's $4.2 billion (R59 billion) lawsuit against the MTN group has been dragging through the courts for years.

Turkcell first sued Johannesburg-based MTN in a US court in 2012, alleging MTN unlawfully secured an Iranian GSM licence that had been won by Turkcell in 2004. The case was later withdrawn from US courts and filed in South Africa in 2013 but was held up in legal wrangling. The case reappeared in 2017 and MTN filed a plea asking the court to dismiss the case.

The $4.2 billion claim is calculated from the profits Turkcell says it would have made had it operated the Irancell licence. Turkcell is also claiming interest on that amount, from 2005.

Iran is MTN's second biggest market when looking at subscriber numbers, behind Nigeria.

MTN has also struggled over the years to repatriate cash out of its Iran operations due to US sanctions on the country.

Troubled times

Iran is not MTN's only troubled territory. Last week, MTN Uganda CEO Wim Vanhelleputte was deported from the country. MTN said it had not been notified of the grounds for the deportation but Reuters later reported that police said it was "over national security concerns".

MTN says it is "engaging with the authorities to seek understanding that would lead us to resolving this matter".

This followed last month's arrest and deportation of three senior managers for MTN Uganda. They were chief marketing officer Olivier Prentout, head of sales and distribution Annie Bilenge Tabura and head of mobile financial services Elza Muzzolini.

MTN is also still facing legal claims in Nigeria over the alleged non-payment of $2 billion in back taxes. This was linked to the August 2018 matter where MTN was ordered by the Central Bank of Nigeria to bring back a total of $8.1 billion it alleged the company had illegally repatriated in breach of foreign exchange regulations.

In late December 2018, after months of negotiations, the South African telco announced it would pay $53 million (R747 million) to resolve the matter, without admission of liability.

However, this did not settle the issue with the Nigerian attorney general, which has also demanded $2 billion in taxes relating to the importation of foreign equipment and payments to foreign suppliers since 2008. The case has been postponed until 26 March.

The MTN group operates in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East, and as of 30 September 2018, had 225.4 million subscribers across its operations.

MTN's share price on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange has dropped by 29.8% over the last year, according to Bloomberg data, and since the beginning of 2019, it is down by 5.9%.