LONDON — An Italian judge ruled on Wednesday that two of the world’s largest oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell and Eni, the Italian company, must go on trial on charges of corruption over a $1.3 billion oil deal in Nigeria.
The judge set a March 5 trial date in Milan for the companies as well as a group of current and former executives, including Claudio Descalzi, Eni’s chief executive, and Malcolm Brinded, a former chief of exploration and production for Shell. No current Shell officials were to be tried in the case.
Both companies have denied wrongdoing, but having such senior or former top executives facing trial is unusual. The court case is likely to highlight the murky dealings of the international oil business, in which large sums of money are sometimes paid to governments for access to resources.
“This is a landmark case,” said Barnaby Pace, a campaigner at Global Witness, a nonprofit group that has conducted its own investigations of the Nigeria case. “This is something of massive concern for the companies involved.”
The case stems from a long-running investigation by Italian prosecutors into the two companies’ purchase in 2011 of a potentially lucrative offshore tract called OPL 245 in the Atlantic Ocean off Nigeria.
The payment to the Nigerian government was intended to resolve a dispute over the tract, which was also claimed by a company called Malabu Oil and Gas. That company has been linked to a former Nigerian oil minister, Dan Etete. The Nigerian government, in turn, agreed to pay $1.1 billion to settle Malabu’s claims.
Italian prosecutors say that Nigerian officials were paid off with large sums of money.
The Dutch police raided the offices of Royal Dutch Shell last year as part of the investigation. But Shell said in a statement on Wednesday, “We believe the trial judges will conclude that there is no case against Shell or its former employees.”
Eni’s board said in a statement that it “reaffirmed its confidence that the company was not involved in alleged corrupt activities.” The board also “confirmed its full confidence that chief executive, Claudio Descalzi, was not involved in the alleged illegal conduct.”
Mr. Brinded said in a statement, “I have done nothing wrong and believe that will become clear in any legal proceedings.”
The companies assert that their payment to the Nigerian government was legal and that they did not know and are not responsible for what happened to the money afterward. Shell has said that it realized the only way to resolve the dispute over the block was to reach a settlement with Mr. Etete and Malabu.
Shell is the largest oil company in Europe and the biggest operator in Nigeria. Eni is Italy’s flagship company, with operations around the world. The Italian company is particularly strong in oil and gas-rich African countries like Algeria, Libya and Mozambique.
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