The Milan Public Prosecutor’s Office has charged several senior Royal Dutch Shell executives in Italy for their role in a widespread bribery scheme to acquire oil exploration rights in Nigeria.

Those facing trial include Malcolm Brinded CBE, the former executive director for Upstream International and the second most powerful person in the company when the deal was struck. Shell itself is also facing bribery charges, alongside Peter Robinson, former vice president for Shell’s sub-Saharan Africa operations; Guy Colegate and John Copleston, former Shell employees and ex-MI6 agents.

“This could be the biggest corporate bribery trial in history and a watershed moment for the oil industry,” said Barnaby Pace of Global Witness.   

In 2011, Shell and Italian oil company Eni paid $1.1 billion to secure rights to one of Africa’s most valuable oil blocks, known as OPL 245. Money for the deal went directly into the pockets of Dan Etete, former Nigerian Minister of Petroleum and a convicted money launderer, who had awarded himself ownership of the block in 1998 through a company he secretly owned called, “Malabu Oil and Gas.” Etete was convicted of money laundering in France in 2007.

For years, Shell has claimed that it only paid the Nigerian government. But after an investigation by Global Witness, Shell shifted its position and acknowledged it had dealt with Etete, via his front company Malabu.

In December, the Milan Public Prosecutor alleged that $520 million from the deal was converted into cash and intended to be paid to the then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, members of the government and other Nigerian government officials. Now, Italian authorities have brought bribery charges against Malcolm Brinded, then head of Upstream, alongside three others.

According to the Shell Foundation, Brinded has stepped down from his role as chairman of the Board of Trustees, due to the legal action in Italy. Brinded remains a trustee of the Foundation as well as retained positions as chair of Engineering U.K. and president of the Energy Institute.

In September 2017, BHP Billiton announced that Brinded will not return to the BHP Billiton board due to judicial inquiries over the OPL 245 deal. In 2002, Brinded was awarded the CBE for services to the U.K. Oil and Gas Industry. These individual charges are in addition to existing charges brought against Shell, Italian oil major Eni, Eni’s CEO, former CEO and Chief Operations Officer, middlemen and several Nigerian officials.

“Shell’s current CEO Ben van Beurden...has had four years as CEO to address a scandal that now threatens to engulf his company, but [he] has done next to nothing,” Pace of Global Witness said. “He should draw a line under the case by admitting the company’s guilt, removing Brinded from his position, and setting out his plan for overhauling the company’s anti-bribery efforts for the future.”     

“These charges are a clear signal that it is no longer business as usual for oil companies in Nigeria,” said Olanrewaju Suraju, of Human and Environmental Development Agenda of Nigerial. “It’s now time for the Dutch and British authorities to follow Italy’s lead and hold their biggest company to account.”