Iran Billionaire to Appeal Death Sentence in Oil Fraud Case

Babak Zanjani

Babak Zanjani, in blue, in a Tehran court in November 2015.

Photographer: Hemat Khahi/EPA
  • Zanjani guilty of funneling money out of Iran during sanctions
  • Analyst says Iran wants to show that it is tackling corruption

Iranian billionaire Babak Zanjani will appeal his death sentence in an oil fraud case, his lawyer said.

“The sentence is not final and there is room to dispute it,” Rasoul Kouhpayezadeh told the Iranian Students News Agency on Sunday. “We will for sure appeal.”

Zanjani, who has denied all wrongdoing, was accused of embezzling $2.7 billion from the state-run National Iranian Oil Co. during transactions intended to circumvent international sanctions on crude exports, according to state-run media. Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said in 2014 that Zanjani used the Tajikistan branch of his own bank, First Islamic Investment Bank, to funnel the money out of Iran.

“My only aim was to serve the political establishment and I did,” Zanjani was quoted as saying after learning of the ruling against him, according to state-run Tasnim news agency, which cited his lawyer.

The embezzlement occurred under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, around the time when international sanctions against Iran peaked in 2012. Zanjani, who previously operated as an informal dealer at the oil ministry, was arrested in December 2013 after the election of President Hassan Rouhani and brought to trial last year.

Fighting Corruption

Rouhani’s government wants to show Iranians as well as foreigners that it is committed to tackling corruption as the nation opens up economically, said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle Eastern politics who studies Iran at Qatar University in Doha. World powers including the U.S. have lifted sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program after a landmark accord with the Islamic Republic in July.

The billionaire was convicted in a case involving an oil fund, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a spokesman for Iran’s judiciary, said on Sunday. The court found enough evidence to convict Zanjani and two other people who were also sentenced to death, he said. They were also ordered to repay a quarter of the money they laundered, according to Tasnim.

Shargh newspaper identified the two other convicted men as Mehdi Shamszadeh, an Iranian who also holds British citizenship, and Hamid Fellah Heravi.

Zanjani, who is in his early 40s, was put on trial for failing to pay for the crude oil he took from the oil ministry for sale, Shargh said. He also pocketed 1.5 billion euros ($1.64 billion) in cash from officials in Ahmadinejad’s government, Shargh said.

Executing Zanjani would allow other, more powerful figures to get off scot-free, said Hossein Dehdashti, who heads a special parliamentary commission set up to follow the oil corruption case.

“The hands operating behind the scenes, that were more involved than he was in this case, will sink into oblivion,” Dehdashti said in a report on ICANA, parliament’s news agency. “Influential individuals involved in this case who had titles and positions in the past government have pocketed the nation’s assets. The judiciary must delay carrying out the sentence until he confesses to all violations and individuals involved in this case.”

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