BCCI fraudster jailed for record 14 years and fined pounds 3m

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Abbas Kasimili Gokal, the world's biggest fraudster, yesterday received the longest sentence ever handed down by a British court for fraud. Gokal, the man at the centre of the collapse of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International, was jailed for 14 years at the Old Bailey. The defendant, who had fought his case on legal aid, was also ordered to pay a record pounds 2.94m from his personal assets within two years or face three more years in prison.

A prosecution request that the pounds 4.3m costs of the 125- day trial be awarded against the disgraced Pakistani shipping magnate was also granted. However, enforcement of this order - another record - was stayed until more of his assets could be traced. The Serious Fraud Office believes he has pounds 100m secreted abroad.

Mr Justice Buxton was satisfied that Gokal had more than enough funds to bankroll his defence, but did not wish to pass any comments on the "appropriateness" of him being funded by the Legal Aid Board.

However, after sentencing, Keith Vaz MP and chair of the BCCI campaign committee, said: "The victims of BCCI will want to know why it was possible for someone as wealthy as this to get legal aid ... and I shall be tabling questions when the House of Commons reopens."

Gokal, 61, had been convicted of fraud involving $1.2bn (pounds 740m) in loans from BCCI. He was a close friend of Hassan Abedi, the bank's founder, and was the biggest single borrower before banking authorities closed BCCI in 1992 following the discovery of fraud to the value of $20bn (pounds 12.4bn).

The tall, silver-haired, slightly stooping Gokal waved to his wife, Rukaiya, and daughter, Sukaiyna, in the public gallery as he was led to the cells. The court heard that Gokal, who claimed he was penniless, had given them and other family members "gifts" to avoid paying financial penalties.

Mr Justice Buxton took Gokal's age into account, as well as his time in custody since his arrest in 1994 in deciding sentence. But he condemned Gokal's criminal career, and his "lying and untrue defence".

The judge said: "I am satisfied you are an intelligent, sophisticated and unscrupulous man who put the interests of yourself and your family before all else.

"These were not victimless crimes. First, the fraudulent conduct of a major international bank, BCCI, and the concealment from its auditors and regulators of its insecure financial position, all of which you helped and facilitated, created a serious threat to the integrity of the international banking system.

"Secondly, one of the main objectives of the conspiracies was to conceal the true position of BCCI, enabling it to continue to take funds from depositors. The victims have lost a large part of their investments and in some cases a large part of their life savings. They trusted the bank, as you knew they would. Other depositors were public bodies who although not ruined by the collapse of BCCI have found their activities seriously restricted, and thus the interests of the inhabitants of their area seriously damaged by losing their deposit."

He added: "You have shown not the slightest apology or remorse for these massive frauds or for the damage and loss that your conspiracies have caused to many thousands.

"I have not the slightest doubt that with the cynical calculation that has characterised all your dealings you put forward a lying and untrue defence, because you hoped that the complicated nature of the fraudulent agreement that you had made, and the skill with which you have sought to cover your tracks, would cause such difficulty in proving the case against you in court that you would evade justice."

The judge added that in his view "an improper and dishonest relationship" existed between Gokal and BCCI founder, Hassan Abedi, from the very beginning. As early as 1975 the pair were involved in illicit activities, and together created a miasma of false documentation and accounts which resulted in the parlous state of BCCI not being discovered by the regulators until it was too late.

After sentencing, Chris Dickson, a senior SFO lawyer said: "This was one of the most complex investigations ever mounted by us. We had to send investigators to every continent to gather evidence ... and call witnesses from 80 different countries.

"We are convinced that a huge amount of money is hidden abroad. This is no consolation to thousands of investors who have lost everything. One man was saving up for a liver transplant and he lost everything."

The previous highest sentences for fraud in the country were the 10- year jail terms imposed on Peter Clowes, of Barlow Clowes, and accountant Durnford Ford.

BCCI's collapse in 1991 ruined thousands of depositors. Public bodies were also hit - pounds 23m was lost by The Western Isles Council, pounds 3.5m by Westminster City Council, and pounds 4.5m by Harlow Council in Essex.

In 1992 Gokal fled Geneva for Pakistan where he could not be extradited. However, he became involved in liaison with John Moscow, assistant district- attorney of New York, who offered him a plea-bargaining deal for information about corrupt US politicians and officials.

In July 1994 Gokal left for the US unaware that the SFO had discovered his plans. During a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany he was arrested and, after a brief spell in prison, was extradited to London.

Gokal was charged on two counts of conspiring to account falsely and conspiracy to defraud. His alleged fellow-conspirators included his brother Mustapha and Murtaza, both in Pakistan, Hassan Abedi, and Swaleh Naqci, the bank's number two. He was sentenced to four years on the first count and 10 years on the second, to run consecutively. He intends to appeal the conviction.