Britain lifts freeze on Nigerian ex-gov's assets

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LONDON, Oct 2 (Reuters) A British court has lifted a freeze on property worth 35 million dollars belonging to a Nigerian former state governor suspected of corruption, the court said today.

The ruling was a victory for James Ibori, former governor of oil producing Delta state, one of Nigeria's richest states where endemic corruption means there is little locally to show for it.

Ibori's case is being closely watched in Nigeria because he is seen as one of the kingmakers behind President Umaru Yar'Adua, who took office in May, in a country where having friends in high places has been a reliable shield from the law.

Ibori is suspected of embezzling public funds while governor of Delta State.

Judge Andrew Goymer, sitting at Southwark Crown Court, ruled on Monday the evidence against Ibori was not strong enough to sustain an August 2 order freezing his worldwide assets.

''I have allowed the Crown two months to put new material before the Court to support the allegations against Chief Ibori,'' Goymer said in ruling against the Crown Prosecution Service, which brought the case.

''If anything, on the material before me today there is less cause for me to believe that Chief Ibori has benefited from criminal conduct in Nigeria,'' he added.

A lawyer for Ibori said the court had also ordered the prosecution to pay his costs.

Ibori was one of a handful of key sponsors of Yar'Adua for the presidency during the election campaign earlier this year. He rarely left his side during the campaign, and bankrolled some of the costs, party sources say.

Yar'Adua promised zero tolerance for corruption when he took office on May 29, after elections in April that were so badly rigged they were deemed not credible by international observers.

Five former governors were charged with money laundering and embezzlement within a few weeks, raising hopes that the tide was turning against Nigeria's kleptocratic elite.

But the country's main corruption-fighting agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, has become bogged down in a row with the Attorney-General of the Federation Michael Aondoakaa, who has tried to assert his authority over it.

The row has prompted campaigners to question Yar'Adua's commitment to fighting graft in one of the world's most tainted nations.

Anti-corruption campaigners accuse Aondoakaa, a lawyer who defended governors accused of corruption before he became attorney-general, of trying to protect Ibori and others.

Britain, Nigeria's former colonial ruler, has for decades been a popular destination for corrupt Nigerian politicians to go shopping, buy properties and place their children in expensive private schools.

But the British authorities have cracked down on the trend and Ibori is the third Nigerian state governor to have fallen foul of British law since a new Proceeds of Crime Act was introduced in 2002.

Two others were charged with money laundering in London but both jumped bail. One has since been convicted of corruption by a Nigerian court, while the other is on trial and has had some of his assets returned to Nigeria by the British authorities.

REUTERS ARB RAI1847

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