Drama at the Rolls – leading QCs battle over hacking allegations

 

Very few cases heard in the Rolls Building ever make it into the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Times and the Financial Times, as well the legal trade press. A combination of human interest and large sums being claimed certainly helped to focus attention on the case of Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority (RAKIA) v Farhad Azima. But in the minds of editors and journalists alike, what really cemented events in Court 12 as good copy was allegations of computer hacking, threatening behaviour and human rights abuses involving the partner of a major international law firm.

The case involves an action for damages, totalling $3.7m (£2.8bn), brought by RAKIA, the sovereign wealth fund of one of the seven United Arab Emirates, for alleged fraudulent misrepresentation, breach of contract and unlawful means conspiracy against Farhad Azima, a US businessman. Ostensibly, this involved a deal that failed in 2016, as part of a joint venture agreement with one of Azima’s companies, but RAKIA also alleges that Azima attempted to ‘maliciously denigrate’ its reputation and was involved in a campaign to highlight human rights abuses in RAK.

Azima denies these allegations, excluding the human rights campaign, accusing RAKIA in a counterclaim of hacking ‘a huge quantity’ of confidential documents and data via his emails, described in his statement as ‘a prolonged illegal computer hacking attack on Mr Azima’s emails and data occurring until immediately prior to the issuing of RAKIA’s claim in September 2016.’ He further claims that he was approached by Neil Gerrard, global co-head of Dechert’s white collar and securities practice, who was then investigating alleged fraud on RAKIA’s behalf. Azima alleges that Gerrard initially asked him to change sides and support RAKIA in its dispute with Khater Massaad, RAKIA’s former chief executive, before later threatening him.

Both sides have been represented in court by distinguished QCs: Hugh Tomlinson of Matrix Chambers for RAKIA and Tim Lord of Brick Court Chambers for Azima. But the journalists present were interested less in the minutiae of the complex commercial dispute over the deal, and rather more in the sensational allegations surrounding it.

The first of these concerned hacking. Central to these allegations is Gerrard. Under cross-examination by Lord QC, he was asked whether he knew that Azima’s emails had been subject to a hack. Gerrard said that he did not.

Lord then said: ‘I suggest, Mr Gerrard, that what you’ve just said is not truthful…you were aware of the confidential material that had been procured illegally from within Mr Azima’s email records in October/November 2015 and one way or another you thought you were on to something.’ Gerrard responded: ‘I’d like to deny that. It’s preposterous. But I’d also like to explore that question because what you are suggesting is I had a secret little stash of Mr Azima’s documents which I could select at will to identify frauds. How would I do that? How do I pull this stuff down? How do I search for it?’

Lord accused Gerrard of further lying: ‘Mr Gerrard, that you’re not telling the truth to his Lordship and that what you’re doing is trying to truncate this line of questioning about the intelligence-gathering and monitoring activities…That’s what I put to you, Mr Gerrard, that you’re not telling his Lordship the truth.’ Gerrard denied this by saying: ‘That is completely wrong.’

But in further cross-examination, Gerrard did admit that during a meeting with Azima he had warned him of “collateral damage” if he did not assist in pursuing Massaad.

Lord QC: So you were in fact threatening Dr Massaad and his associates – in other words, Mr Azima, as you thought it – you were essentially threatening them with much more serious criminal consequences, weren’t you?

Gerrard: It was going to escalate to federal level, yes.

Lord QC: The answer is “Yes”, isn’t it?

Gerrard: The answer is “Yes”.

Lord QC then asked: ‘So you were warning Dr Massaad and his associates that they were going to be pursued in relation to gun-running if they didn’t cooperate with your investigation? Is that right? Think very carefully before you answer that, Mr Gerrard.’

Gerrard replied: ‘I was warning him that the matters were serious and that he ought to engage…
We were warning Massaad through Azima that things would be getting worse and there would be collateral damage due to his lack of cooperation…The case would widen to gun running, people trafficking and Hezbollah terrorist funding.’

Gerrard also faced questions about his role in alleged human rights abuses in RAK, namely “orchestrating” secret prisons where suspects were detained without due process. Gerrard told the court that he had interviewed at least one detainee in RAK in a prison, but said that these interviews were conducted with the agreement of the suspect’s lawyers and were not undertaken on behalf of the UAE government.

During the course of the case, fresh claims were made against Dechert. In documents filed at the High Court, Karam Al Sadeq, RAKIA’s former RAKIA general counsel, alleges that two lawyers – Gerrard and another former Dechert partner, David Hughes – interrogated him in prison in Ras Al Khaimah. Al Sadeq says that he has been kept in solitary confinement for more than 600 days. He also claims that Gerrard and Hughes interrogated and intimidated him during a prison interview which, he claims, resulted in a false confession.

Sadeq alleges that the two lawyers ‘were involved in everything that happened to me in terms of my arrest, insults, restrictions and the threatening of my family’. He adds that they threatened to ‘tell my wife that her husband was cheating on her and [that they then] sent a man from the RAK Security to correspond with her and they told her that her husband is a cheater and every day he is with a woman.’ In the claim Sadeq also alleges that Gerrard told him: ‘Nothing will happen that I do not want . . . I am the law.’

In cross examination, Mr Azima said of Mr Al Sadeq’s position, and his involvement in exposing human rights abuses in the UAE: “I felt duty-bound to help him. Yes, I will do that and I will continue to do that tomorrow and until the day I die. If somebody has this kind of problem, I will help him.”

The case continues.

 

Written by Dominic Carman

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