Saddam and van Hoogstraten's lawyer, the BBC and a stalled deal

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The Independent Online

Mark Byford, the deputy director-general of the BBC, struck a deal with a company linked to Saddam Hussein's solicitor, Giovanni di Stefano, described by the BBC itself as the "world's most controversial lawyer".

Mark Byford, the deputy director-general of the BBC, struck a deal with a company linked to Saddam Hussein's solicitor, Giovanni di Stefano, described by the BBC itself as the "world's most controversial lawyer".

The agreement, which involved the BBC supplying programming to two TV services in central Russia under licence, is now in danger of unravelling amid charges of unpaid debts.

The deal was announced by Mr Byford in February last year when he was in charge of BBC World, the corporation's 24-hour international news channel. It involved the BBC selling programmes to terrestrial broadcaster OTV and satellite service TB+, which would be translated and rebroadcast. The agreement was struck with a UK-registered company, Uralindustry (UK), and its parent, Angloasian Media. Both businesses are run by Thomas Puskas, an Austro-Hungarian entrepreneur.

OTV broadcast the BBC programmes until March. TB+ has yet to begin broadcasting.

The Independent on Sunday has been contacted by suppliers and former employees of Angloasian complaining that they have not been paid. The company has left its offices in the London Playhouse Centre, a broadcast suite in central London, and calls to the company go to an answering service.

Angloasian's accounts show that one of Mr Puskas's joint directors is Michele di Stefano, the son of Giovanni.

Along with Saddam, Giovanni Di Stefano boasts clients such as Nicholas van Hoogstraten, the controversial property developer who was recently acquitted of manslaughter, timeshare fraudster John "Goldfinger" Palmer and "road rage" killer Kenneth Noye.

He was interviewed in March on BBC World'sHardtalk programme, which said the lawyer's "friends and clients read like a Who's Who of the world's most notorious figures".

Mr Puskas, 41, claims he has invested $6m (£3.3m) in the TB+ project. Asked about his links with the di Stefano family, he said: "Giovanni di Stefano is my solicitor and Michele is helping me in the business."

"Technical difficulties" had been encountered setting up TB+, he added. But "we are restructuring and reorganising" and hope, "depending on the technical issues, to be on the air in three to four weeks".

Mr Puskas said the group had closed its old offices while it relocates to new premises let to it by cable TV group NTL. He put problems with employees down to a "former translator who got fired".

As for unpaid suppliers, Mr Puskas said: "It is always a question of your point of view. We have had arguments with a number of companies if the quality was not what it was supposed to be."

A spokesman for BBC World said the corporation had yet to supply any programmes to TB+ under the 2003 agreement and had no financial exposure to Angloasian. He refused to say whether BBC World was aware of the group's links with Giovanni di Stefano. "Normal business procedures were followed."

Mr Byford was promoted from head of BBC World and the World Service to deputy director-general at the beginning of this year. After the resignation of Greg Dyke, he was briefly acting director-general.

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