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British American Tobacco allegedly negotiated bribe for Mugabe, new evidence reveals

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British American Tobacco has been accused of negotiating a bribe for former Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)
British American Tobacco has been accused of negotiating a bribe for former Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

One of Britain’s biggest companies was involved in negotiations to pay Robert Mugabe hundreds of thousands of dollars shortly before his re-election, according to new evidence.

Leaked documents allegedly suggest British American Tobacco (BAT) was linked to a conspiracy to pay between $300,000 and $500,000 to the former Zimbabwean leader’s Zanu-PF party to get three men released from jail in return.

At the time, BAT was paying Forensic Security Services (FSS), a South African private security contractor, to carry out secret surveillance on rival companies, according to a joint investigation by BBC Panorama, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the University of Bath.

FFS allegedly paid a local firm to spy on a Savanna Tobacco factory - owned by the husband of Mugabe’s niece - in 2012 but the company was caught and three directors were charged in connection with illegal surveillance, the investigation claims.

According to the joint investigation, an internal memo shows BAT was told to donate the huge sum of money to Zanu-PF to have the men released.

One man working on behalf of BAT, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told BBC Panorama he bribed a number of Zimbabwean government officials to secure a meeting to discuss the men’s case.

An internal memo seen by those involved in the investigation revealed a Zimbabwean official suggested that, given the upcoming elections, a donation to Mugabe’s party would help the situation.

The three men were released days later and the charges were officially dropped after two months.

However, the investigation did not uncover any evidence that BAT paid the alleged bribe, and the company has denied all of the allegations.

It is not the first time BAT has been caught up in allegations of corruption.

British American Tobacco’s offices in London (Toby Melville/Reuters)
British American Tobacco’s offices in London (Toby Melville/Reuters)

In 2015, another Panorama investigation uncovered evidence suggesting the company had been bribing senior politicians and civil servants in Africa in a bid to sabotage anti-smoking laws.

And in 2017 it was revealed the business and its subsidiaries were being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office amid suspicions of corruption.

British American Tobacco strongly denied the allegations made in the BBC Panorama and Bureau of Investigative Journalism probe.

A spokesperson for the company said: “We emphatically reject the mischaracterisation of our conduct by some media outlets.

“Acting responsibly and with integrity underpins the foundations of our culture and values as a company. BAT is committed to the highest standards of corporate conduct and transparency wherever we operate.

“BAT has long been committed to fighting the global criminal trade in illicit tobacco. As part of those efforts, BAT has sought to assist national law enforcement agencies in providing support and, in the past, intelligence on suspected illicit operators.

“These efforts in combating illicit trade have been aimed at helping law enforcement agencies in the fight against the criminal trade in tobacco products with the aim of countering the seriously detrimental effects that illicit trade has on society.

“The allegations being made regarding BAT’s anti-illicit trade activities have been covered extensively in various news media over several years.

“In 2016 BAT made public that it was investigating allegations of misconduct and was liaising with the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO). BAT fully co-operated with the SFO’s subsequent investigation.

“In January 2021 the SFO announced that, ‘following extensive investigation and a comprehensive review of the available evidence’, it had closed its investigation into BAT, its subsidiaries and associated persons, without charge.”

BBC Panorama’s Dirty Secrets of the Cigarette Business will air on BBC One at 7.30pm on Monday.

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