Subject: AFP: East Timor PM challenged answer bribe charges in US court

East Timor PM challenged answer bribe charges in US court

DARWIN, Australia (AFP) - A US oil company challenged East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri to appear in a US court to respond to allegations that he accepted a multi-million dollar bribe from a rival firm.

Denver-based oil company Oceanic Exploration issued the challenge in a letter handed to Alkatiri as he flew into the northern Australian city of Darwin to address an oil and gas conference, a company official told AFP.

The move came after Alkatiri complained on SBS television that he was unable to defend his reputation in the case because Oceanic had not named him as a respondent and he had not been called to court.

The prime minister said "Thank you very much" after being handed Oceanic's letter by a private detective, and made no further comment, the official told AFP.

Alkatiri has strenuously denied allegations made by Oceanic Exploration in March that rival oil giant ConocoPhillips paid him 2.5 million US dollars to advance its lucrative investment interests in the Timor Sea.

Oceanic Exploration has also implicated other unidentified East Timorese politicians and an Australian diplomat in the case.

A lawsuit filed by the company in the US District Court claimed Australia, Indonesia and ConocoPhillips had conspired to steal a concession it was granted by former coloniser Portugal, before Indonesia invaded East Timor (news - web sites) in 1975, to develop resources in the Timor Sea.

The claim against ConocoPhillips, made under US anti-racketeering laws, seeks 10.5 billion US dollars in compensation, which could treble if the case is proven and found to be the result of a criminal conspiracy.

Alkatiri told SBS television that he would have preferred to have been named as a respondent in the case so that he could defend himself.

"Unfortunately I was not present as a defendant in court," he told the programme. "I would prefer them to accuse me and put me in the place of a defendant too, but it was made intentionally and was based on American laws."

In the letter handed to him Sunday, lawyer Dale Oliver quoted the television interview, writing: "We will take you up on your challenge. We accept your offer to be named as a defendant."

He said to do so East Timor's first prime minister must agree to submit to the jurisdiction of the Washington court, adding: "Oceanic does not ask you to admit liability or guilt nor would it expect you to make such admission."

Oceanic lost an action in a Canberra court last year accusing the Australian government of breach of contract over its Timor Sea claim.

The 93-page document outlining its case against ConocoPhillips covers a sweeping array of charges including racketeering, money-laundering and embezzlement.

Bribery allegations in the document extend to other unidentified East Timorese politicians and charge that an Australian diplomat was involved in the payments.

The document alleges Alkatiri kept two bank accounts in Australia's northern capital of Darwin to receive payments.

Independent investigations have failed to back these claims, and Alkatiri told said on the SBS programme the accounts in question were set up to pay bills for his relatives in Darwin and the amount of money alleged to be in them were "completely false".

"I had, maximum, in this bank account of a few thousand, very few thousand," he said.


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