Hacked emails and torture claims: how top lawyer Neil Gerrard became engulfed in serious allegations

In December 2019, private investigator Stuart Page left his mobile phone at home and boarded a series of trains to reach a boutique hotel nestled in the Swiss mountains, where he would meet British lawyer Neil Gerrard.

They were not reuniting for a winter break, but, according to Page, to rehearse a mock trial having prepared an elaborate fiction to conceal a hacking operation from the High Court.

The pair had been summoned to give evidence in relation to allegations that they had relied on hacked documents to help a Middle Eastern client win a fraud case.

Those allegations have now dramatically resurfaced, as Page turned on Gerrard in an explosive affidavit filed with a US court last week that tells a story of burner phones, secret hotel assignations and a cover-up involving one of the world’s most powerful law firms.

The affidavit, seen by the Financial Times, is the latest in a series of blistering allegations, including torture and human rights abuses, to have been levelled at Gerrard, relating to his work in the Middle East, all of which he denies.

Gerrard, who retired in 2020, and Dechert, the international law firm he joined in 2011, are now battling lawsuits that amount to some of the most serious claims ever to have been levelled against a lawyer or firm.

Neil Gerrard was one of the City of London’s top litigators, having joined Dechert on a pay deal worth about $3m a year

Hacked emails and Middle East business deals

Gerrard, a former policeman, was one of the City of London’s top litigators, having joined Dechert on a pay deal worth about $3m a year to co-lead its white-collar crime practice.

He and Page worked together for a tiny United Arab Emirate named Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) to investigate the former chief executive of its sovereign wealth fund, Khater Massaad, who the ruler suspected of embezzlement, and who was later convicted. Gerrard was hired in 2014 and Page a year later, according to his affidavit.

RAK’s investment fund agreed in 2007 to back Kansas-based aviation tycoon, Farhad Azima, to develop a pilot training camp that closed down some years later, and sell a hotel in Georgia.

The deals went sour, and his ties to Massaad put Azima in the spotlight for Gerrard and Page.

In 2016, the Emirate’s fund, the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority (RAKIA), sued Azima for £3.7m for alleged fraudulent misrepresentation at the High Court in London over the pilot school and breach of contract on the hotel deal.

RAKIA’s largely successful case against Azima was based on a cache of his hacked emails, which appeared online in 2016 as part of a so-called “hack and dump” operation. In witness testimony for RAKIA, Page and Gerrard claimed to have innocently stumbled upon the hacked information via an Israeli journalist named Majdi Halabi, who also gave evidence.

The judge said there was “no dispute” that RAKIA’s case against Azima was based on evidence obtained through hacking, but allowed the evidence to be used. Azima was found liable for fraudulent misrepresentation and bribery in 2020 and ordered to pay more than $4m. He was later granted a retrial of his claim that he had been hacked by RAKIA, which is pending.

Last week Page said his and Gerrard’s testimony about the emails was a lie. He claimed in the affidavit that the Azima documents came from Amit Forlit, a former Israeli intelligence officer, who Page was paying for information. According to Page’s affidavit, Forlit’s agents employed intelligence methods including “hacking techniques”. Forlit did not respond to a request for comment.

The affidavit was filed in a court in Manhattan as part of Azima’s bid to uncover documents from an associate of RAKIA in the US.

It claimed that Gerrard was not only aware of the origin of Azima’s hacked data but orchestrated an elaborate cover story to hide its origins so it could be used as evidence to secure a victory in the High Court for RAKIA.

A mock trial in a Swiss hotel

In December 2019, weeks before the Azima trial was due to begin, Page travelled to Switzerland to meet Gerrard, Halabi and Forlit. Page said in his affidavit that he sought to “avoid detection” — witnesses in trials in England must not discuss their evidence and it is illegal to lie in evidence to a court.

At the hotel, Gerrard led a mock trial, playing judge and cross-examiner, according to the affidavit, and the group made use of a private chef and wine cellar.

A month later, Gerrard would tell the High Court that the notion he had relied upon hacked data to build a case against Azima was “preposterous”

Azima has now sued Dechert and Gerrard, adding them as defendants to his hacking case, meaning that they will face a High Court trial in 2023 and could be forced to pay damages if they lose.

In a statement, Dechert said: “We have no comment on the proceedings beyond that we are defending the claims.”

Page will no longer face trial. The case against him was discontinued following his updated statement.

Farhad Azima was found liable for fraudulent misrepresentation and bribery in 2020 and ordered to pay more than $4m © New York Times/Redux/ eyevine

Unusual use of mobile phones

Dechert and Gerrard are also bracing themselves for the imminent outcome of a claim brought by former client ENRC, part of an international mining group, which could result in a punitive financial payout.

ENRC has accused Gerrard of leaking confidential information about it to the press and colluding with the UK Serious Fraud Office to wrongfully expand an investigation into it. Dechert and Gerrard deny those allegations and in defence filings say that Gerrard uncovered evidence of fraud, corruption and sanctions breaches in relation to some of the mining group’s activities and was just doing his job.

The cases have features in common that expose ways in which Gerrard may have worked, including unusual practices such as the former lawyer’s use of multiple mobile phones, all issued by Dechert.

Documents that became public in a case relating to a former legal adviser to RAK’s ruler, Karam Al Sadeq, revealed that Gerrard had used 26 separate mobile devices since 2012, six of which were lost and one of which was reported stolen.

Al Sadeq has accused Gerrard and other Dechert partners of being responsible for his torture and human-rights abuses. In a defence filed last year, the firm denied that the lawyers had ever tortured Al Sadeq or been responsible for any other illegal acts against him.

Gerrard and Dechert, which has been paying the former lawyer’s legal bills, now face two years defending themselves in costly lawsuits that threaten to prove financially and reputationally damaging to both.

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