Behind the collapse of a behemoth

Kim Sengupta on an intricate conspiracy that reads more like a thriller than a real-life scandal

Kim Sengupta
Thursday 03 April 1997 23:02

The BCCI scandal was the result of a massive failure of the system. But if one man could be said to have played a key role in the spectacular collapse, it was Abbas Gokal.

The flamboyant shipping magnate was one of the most important customers in the short and tempestuous history of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. So much so the bank lent him and his Gulf shipping group $1.2bn.

The money was lost and BCCI's liquidators, Touche Ross, are sueing Gokal and his two brothers, Mustapha and Murtaza. But it is Abbas who ended up in the dock of the Old Bailey in London charged with conspiring to defraud the bank's creditors and depositors, and now faces a substantial jail sentence following the seven-month trial.

How he came to be there is itself a tale of intrigue. Following the $20bn disintegration of the bank, the various investigations into what had gone wrong started on both sides of the Atlantic. It soon became clear Gokal was a prime suspect in the intricate conspiracy.

But he was back at his base in Pakistan, from where he could not be extradited. Contact was made with him by the US authorities. After lengthy negotiations he agreed to leave his safe haven of Karachi to travel to America to be interviewed by John Moscow, the assistant district attorney of New York. He was said to have information about corrupt US politicians and officials, and wanted to strike a favourable plea-bargaining deal.

Mr Moscow wrote to Gokal's American lawyers, " I have spoken with the prosecuting authorities in the United Kingdom. They tell me that they have no current plans to arrest Mr Gokal when he meets with us." He was also at pains to point out that he had kept details of the meetings from the Serious Fraud Office in London.

On 18 July l994 Gokal left for the US. Unknown to him the SFO had discovered his travel plans. It began extradition proceedings. During a stopover in Frankfurt he was hauled off the aircraft by the Federal German police at the request of the SFO and extradited to Britain.

Mr Moscow was said to be furious with the SFO, and denied any suggestion of collusion. Insiders at his office said they were promised details by Gokal about people in power and their dealings with third world countries, drugs and arms dealing.

In London, Gokal was charged with six counts of fraud and false accounting. His alleged fellow conspirators included his brothers Mustapha and Murtaza, Agha Hasan Abedi, the founder of BCCI, and Swaleh Naqvi, the bank's number two.

At the Old Bailey trial which began in September l996 the prosecution claimed Gokal, aged 60, and once a powerful player in world shipping, was instrumental in fraudulently obtaining loans for his ailing empire which was suffering from cash flow problems.

Mr Anthony Hacking, QC, prosecuting told the jury Gokal personally paid out $2m in bribes to BCCI officials to secure the cash line - loans no other banks would touch. When in l991 the Bank of England belatedly closed down BCCI, his business empire "inevitably collapsed".

Mr Hacking said: "It was discovered that Gokal had borrowed $1.2bn. He had not really got any security at all. It was an extraordinary situation. It was a major factor leading to the collapse of the BCCI bank." Gokal had created a "huge financial structure" to hide the truth of his fraudulent activities from the world.

The court heard there were a huge number of documents which had been signed by Gokal that "showed his knowledge and participation in the fraud". The funds made illegally available to Gokal were distributed through his companies. And, Mr Hacking added: "The Crown say that Mr Gokal used vast sums of money he defrauded to sustain his lavish lifestyle around the world to provide personal benefit and gain for himself and his close family."

At the BCCI headquarters at Leadenhall Street, in the City, there was a "special duties department". Mr Hacking said: "Its sole job was to administer fraudulent activities. False documents were created on a vast scale. There were secret meetings between Gokal and BCCI officials in which the fraud was planned. The SFO have recovered notes of these meetings.

"Millions of dollars were flowing back and forth between Gokal's companies and BCCI. There were a large number of companies through which funds flowed. He misused ordinary employees like secretaries and clerks and duped them into signing false documents to deceive on a massive scale."

Gokals' brother-in-law, and former senior aide Abdul Chagla, described the problems faced by the Gulf Group and crucial meetings with BCCI officials. Chagla said: " Most outsiders thought the Gokal brothers ran all the companies in the [Gulf] Group. But that was just conjecture. Abbas Gokal ran the business in every respect. He was the only one who took major decisions He had total control of the Gulf Group companies.

"In the l980s the Gulf Group was having financial problems due to a downturn in the shipping business and by the failure of the group's non-shipping activities. There were already cash flow problems, but by l984 things reached crisis point as various banks sought the repayment of loans."

Chagla told of meetings between Gokal and Agha Hasan Abedi to discuss " increasing loans to pay off overdrafts". They both allegedly agreed documentation of such deals would be non-factual. At a second meeting Abedi allegedly commented: "There would be great trouble if our board or auditors got wind of the money you owe."

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