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British oil firm 'paid Congolese officer to bribe opponents'

A British oil company paid thousands of dollars to a Congolese military officer who allegedly tried to bribe opponents of its oil exploration project in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a campaign group claims.

Global Witness claims cheques and receipts show Soco International, who began seismic testing in Africa's oldest national park in 2014, paid Major Burimni Feruzi more than $40,000 over a two-week period.

Feruzi was caught on camera in Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga, offering $3,000 to a senior park ranger.

Virunga Movie, courtesy of Netflix

Soco, who held their annual general meeting in London today, have previously denied paying Feruzi and said he was a government military liaison officer assigned to them.

But Nathaniel Dyer, head of the Congo team at Global Witness, says the new documents show that despite Soco's denials, the company paid Feruzi.

He called for the UK and US authorities to look into the actions of Soco in the Democratic Republic of Congo to see whether it breached bribery and corruption laws.

Nathaniel Dyer, head of the Congo team at Global Witness

It comes on the back of criticism of Soco's activities in the UNESCO-protected park.

In March 2015, Tessa Munt, then leader of a cross-party anti-corruption group of British MPs, called for UK and US authorities to investigate claims that Soco may have breached anti-corruption legislation.

The Church of England has also joined fellow investor Aviva in speaking publicly about its concerns over Soco’s behaviour.

Following allegations of human rights abuses, bribery and corruption the Church Commissioners and Pensions Board have raised serious concerns with SOCO International and its board since November 2013 and intensively since December 2014.

Our concerns specifically address four main areas relating to the company’s operations in and around Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We remain deeply concerned about the way in which SOCO has sought to address these issues.

Therefore at the AGM today we have asked the board that urgent consideration is given so that an independent Chairman may be appointed to ensure SOCO openly and transparently address the concerns of shareholders.

We will now continue our own rigorous internal assessment and processes which will determine our future relationship with SOCO in light of our intensive engagement and today’s AGM. It would not be appropriate for us to comment further at this stage.

– Church of England
The UNESCO-protected Virunga National Park is home to rare gorillas Credit: Netflix

In a statement, Soco sad it had never denied funding the work of the DRC army in providing a security escort or that Major Feruzi was the army liaison officer assigned to Soco's security.

It said: "During our seismic operations in the DRC, we were unable to enter the area without a military escort.

"SOCO has never denied that the company funded the work of the DRC army in providing a security escort to ensure the personal safety of its staff and contractors during seismic operations, or that Major Feruzi was the DRC army's military liaison officer assigned to SOCO's security.

"However, we strongly refute any suggestion that this funding was in any way improper or connected with alleged acts of intimidation or violence.

"The soldiers assigned to SOCO's security escort were always under the full command and control of the DRC army."

In response to questions about the cheques and receipts published today, Roger Cagle, deputy CEO of Soco, said Feruzi had been assigned to Soco following a requirement to have a military liaison in the region.

Mr Cagle said neither Feruzi “nor any other soldiers were ever employed by Soco and all orders were provided to them by the DRC [Congolese] Government.”

Any financial arrangements were “above board” and agreed with the Congolese government, he added.

The company's solicitors are “investigating matters” and any allegations of this nature are treated by Soco with the “utmost seriousness”, Mr Cagle continued.

He added that Soco is “committed to operating under the best business practices”.