Mr. Justice MacDuff, the U.K. trial judge in the compensation case, issued a declaration on Wednesday saying that the court was "deeply concerned" because to hand over the £30m to anyone else would frustrate the order of the English court.

A pot of £30m compensation due to be paid to thousands of African victims of toxic waste may end up being stolen thanks to the Ivory Coast regime’s corruption, their lawyers said.

The money was handed over by oil traders Trafigura in an out-of-court settlement in London and deposited in a bank in the West African state’s capital, Abidjan, ready to be shared out in cash to each of the 30,000 victims. But the entire sum has been frozen in a sudden move backed by the local state prosecutor, according to Martyn Day, the senior partner at Leigh Day, the London lawyers who won the landmark settlement.

Moves are now in train, he said, to order all the cash to be handed over to a local group claiming to represent the victims. At the same time, Day has received a request to meet representatives of a senior Ivorian figure in Paris, to agree to come to an “arrangement.”

“Blatant corruption” could be occurring, Day, who has flown back to London from Ivory Coast, said on Wednesday. “There is a very serious risk that the compensation monies will simply disappear and our clients will see none of it.”

Mr. Justice MacDuff, the U.K. trial judge in the compensation case, issued a declaration on Wednesday saying that the court was “deeply concerned” because to hand over the £30m to anyone else would frustrate the order of the English court.

The local court in Abidjan is due to rule on the claim this week.

These developments follow the resolution of a bitterly fought compensation case in which Trafigura, a London-based multinational oil-trading company, became internationally notorious after issuing a so-called super-injunction, which had the effect of preventing reports of a question asked in parliament.

Hundreds of tonnes of sulphur-contaminated toxic oil waste were cheaply dumped on landfills and in ditches around Abidjan in 2006. The cargo ship had been chartered by Trafigura. In the weeks after, the fumes caused thousands of sick people to besiege local hospitals.

Day said on Wednesday that, after Trafigura agreed to hand over £30m to compensate those made ill, his firm had arranged an elaborate system of pin cards with the bank in Abidjan to allow local people, most of whom did not have bank accounts, to withdraw cash worth approximately £1,000 each. He said: “On October 22, we were served with an order freezing the payment of the compensation.”

A local figure claimed to be president of the “National Co-Ordination of Toxic Waste Victims of Cote d’Ivoire,” which was said to represent the victims. He applied to have all the money transferred to the alleged association’s account and out of Leigh Day’s hands.

Day said the association’s claims were “false in all respects.”

One of the lawyers’ local employees then warned “he had been contacted by a highly influential figure within Ivorian judicial and financial circles ... This man had requested to meet me in Paris to see if an ‘arrangement’ could be reached in relation to the interest accruing on the clients’ account. He let it be known he could arrange for the freezing order to be dropped if I agreed to the interest being paid to him.”

Day refused to go along with this suggestion. A few days later, the Ivorian state prosecutor announced that the compensation money should be transferred — a stance that local lawyers said the Abidjan court was likely to accept.

“We are extremely wary that if the funds are transferred the compensation will not be distributed among the claimants,” Day said. Instead, it was likely to end up in the hands of shadowy powerful figures.

The vulnerability of Ivory Coast officials to corruption formed part of the background to the original environmental disaster when the waste was dumped.

A by-product of primitive attempts to decontaminate a tanker-load of cheap Mexican gasoline, Trafigura’s toxic waste consisted of hazardous and unstable sulphurous compounds that should have been disposed of by expensive specialist treatment. Eventually a contractor with no experience or facilities agreed to truck away the waste cheaply. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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