Nigeria's prosecution of e-mail con-artists becomes the target of bribery attempts

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The Independent Online

"Request for urgent business relationship: I solicit your utmost confidence in this transaction. It is confidential and Top Secret ..."

Nigeria is notorious for the advance-fee fraud, like the one above, in which individuals are offered huge rewards for facilitating a shady business deal or financial transfer by handing over bank details.

Now a landmark corruption trial in Abuja has become subject to bribery attempts, according to the presiding judge. Three Nigerians are standing trial for allegedly swindling $242m (£130m) from a Brazilian bank in an advance-fee fraud.Two others are charged with attempting to bribe in vestigators from an anti-fraud unit.

Chief Justice Lawal Gumi said yesterday that someone - as yet unnamed - involved with the case had tried to bribe court officials. He told the state-run News Agency of Nigeria: "I want to sound a note of warning that under no circumstances should money be passed around to induce the court."

The case is the largest prosecution of its kind in Nigeria. The five accused, who have pleaded not guilty, are accused of swindling the money from Banco Noroeste, based in Sao Paulo, between 1995 and 1998. They allegedly persuaded the bank's head of international finance to transfer the money into accounts around the world in return for a cut of a construction contract worth $10m.

Nuhu Ribadu of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) said the discovery of the scam had triggered criminal investigations in Britain, Switzerland, the United States and Brazil. The case highlighted the "truly global network of fraudulent individuals" involved, he told the BBC.

Nigeria is the world's second most corrupt country, after Bangladesh, according to the corruption watchdog Transparency International.

The advance-fee fraud is known locally as a "419 scam", after the article in the penal code that outlaws it. Victims are e-mailed or faxed and after lengthy correspondence, are persuaded to hand over bank account details, or pay never-ending "commissions" to facilitate the deal.

President Olusegun Obasanjo has started to counter Nigeria's unsavoury reputation by giving strong powers to the EFCC, which is bringing the prosecution.

The commission has arrested more than 200 people and started about 30 court cases since it was established in May, although it has yet to secure a conviction. Among those indicted was a parliamentarian from Nigeria's House of Representatives. Western firms have also been subject to allegations of sleaze in Nigeria.