JOHANNESBURG – Turkish mobile operator Turkcell said its $4.2 billion lawsuit against rival MTN Group may not get a fair hearing in a South African court, given its opponent’s longstanding ties to the ruling African National Congress.
Turkcell also claimed in U.S. court documents filed on Thursday that its witnesses could face intimidation from MTN if the case were heard in South Africa.
The Turkish company sued MTN in a U.S. district court in March, alleging the Johannesburg-based mobile operator used bribery and attempted trafficking of political influence to win a mobile licence in Iran that was first awarded to Turkcell.
MTN has denied the allegations and called Turkcell’s demands “extortionate”. MTN’s lawyers last month asked to have the case dismissed, saying the case between the two was purely a “commercial dispute” that did not belong in a U.S. court.
Turkcell’s lawyers opposed that motion in their latest filing on August 1, which said South African courts risked political interference.
“Particularly in this case, involving South African political influence at the highest levels of South African business and politics through ‘ANC connections’ the cause for concern should be high,” Turkcell said in its filing.
MTN’s connections to the ANC are well documented: the company was set up with government help in 1994 as one of the first black-owned firms after the end of apartheid. MTN Chairman Cyril Ramaphosa is a senior member of the party and has long been seen as a potential president of South Africa.
ANC spokesman Keith Khoza rejected the argument that a court case held in South Africa would face political pressure from the ruling party or government.
“As the ANC, we would certainly dismiss the notion of any interference in the judiciary in South Africa,” he told Reuters.
“Our judicial system is open, transparent and we subscribe to international standards,” he said, adding that the ruling party did not encourage or support corruption in any form.
Turkcell also said that its key witnesses could face harassment from MTN if the case were tried in South Africa, claiming that its principal witness, former MTN executive Chris Kilowan, has already been subject to intimidation.
“U.S. jurisdiction is particularly necessary given MTN’s threats in South Africa to Kilowan and others since the filing of litigation,” Turkcell said in the filing.
In his three days of sworn testimony in the United States, Kilowan has claimed harassment by MTN, saying that people working for the company had contacted his business associates and ex-wife.
MTN, which has rejected the harassment allegation and called Kilowan a “disgruntled employee”, has appointed a prominent judge in London to conduct an internal investigation of the allegations.
The company has also said it has “zero tolerance” for corruption.
South Africa in July suspended its former ambassador to Tehran, Yusuf Saloojee, pending an investigation into his ties to MTN.
Saloojee, who was ambassador to Oman at the time of the suspension, was named in the Turkcell suit for allegedly taking a $200,000 bribe from MTN to help it win the licence.
South Africa’s elite police unit, the Hawks, is also investigating the bribery allegations.