Several former world leaders, a Hong Kong media tycoon, the CEO of Theranos and Jeffrey Epstein’s confidante — all are scheduled to have their day in court next year.
With vaccinations heralding a return to normalcy, the next year should see courtrooms around the world coming back to life. Ghislaine Maxwell, China critic Jimmy Lai and Samsung heir Jay Y. Lee are among those facing high-profile criminal cases in 2021. Some proceedings, including the fraud trial of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, are resuming after being postponed by the pandemic. Another delayed case, UBS’s appeal of its $4.9 billion French government tax penalty, is among the many that will be heard by higher-level and supreme courts.
There are also a number of cases against former world leaders, including France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. One of the most tantalizing questions will be whether a certain former U.S. president could find himself facing trial as well.
Here are the biggest trials we’re watching out for in 2021 in courts around the world.
The U.S. and Canada
President Donald Trump?
Trump faces a number of legal threats that could heat up once he leaves office on Jan. 20 and loses the protections of the presidency. It’s a near-certainty that no criminal case against him will be ready to go to trial in 2021, and it’s a long shot that any lawsuit sees the inside of a courtroom next year either. But he’s on our list anyway because any trial in a case against Trump would automatically become the year’s biggest. Probably the most advanced case is the defamation suit New York advice columnist E. Jean Carroll’s brought after Trump said she was lying when she accused him of raping her in the 1990s.
Ghislaine Maxwell, British socialite
Court: U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan)
Maxwell, the former girlfriend and confidante of Jeffrey Epstein, is in a New York jail awaiting a July 12 trial on sex-trafficking charges. Federal prosecutors claim the socialite and daughter of British publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell helped Epstein lure underage girls into his orbit and sometimes participated in sexually abusing them. Epstein, who also faced sex-trafficking charges, killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell in August 2019.
Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos Inc.
Court: U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose)
The fraud trial of Holmes, originally scheduled for July 2020, was one of the biggest to be postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. She is now scheduled to go on trial March 9. Once one of Silicon Valley’s biggest rising stars, Holmes promoted a “finger prick” blood-testing machine that was going to revolutionize health care. But it never worked as promised, and prosecutors claim Holmes went to great lengths to conceal the company’s failure from investors. Theranos President Ramesh “Sunny’’ Balwani, Holmes’s onetime lover, faces a separate trial after hers.
Roger Ng, former Goldman Sachs managing director
Court: U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn)
Ng will be tried March 8 on charges he broke U.S. anti-bribery laws by helping a cabal led by Malaysian financier Jho Low steal billions of dollars from Malaysian state investment fund 1MDB, kicking back some of the money to officials. Ng is the first person to go to trial in the U.S. in the scandal. Goldman itself agreed to pay billions of dollars in civil and criminal penalties for its role, and Ng’s former boss Tim Leissner pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against him. Ng claims he warned Goldman against working with Low and that Leissner, not him, drove the bank’s work for 1MDB.
Steve Bannon, former Trump campaign chief and White House chief strategist
Court: U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan)
Bannon goes on trial May 24 on charges that he and three other men defrauded donors and laundered money in connection with their group We Build the Wall, which raised $25 million to fund the private construction of a U.S. border wall. Prosecutors say Bannon and the others — Florida businessman Andrew Badolato, Colorado businessman Timothy Shea and disabled military veteran Brian Kolfage — used donated funds for lavish personal expenses despite pledging that 100% of the money would go towards the wall.
CVS, Walgreens and Other Pharmacy Chains That Prescribed Opioids
Court: U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio (Cleveland)
Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., CVS Health Corp., Walmart Stores Inc., Rite Aid Corp. and other pharmacy chains are being sued for failing to acknowledge so-called “red flags” about heavily repeated sales of opioid painkillers. The case was brought by state and local governments that have also sued pharmaceutical companies and drug distributors over the toll that the opioid crisis has taken on their communities in terms of increased health care and law enforcement spending. Trial date is tentatively set for Oct. 21.
Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.
Courts: British Columbia Supreme Court and U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn)
The daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, Meng has been under house arrest in Vancouver for more than two years as she fights extradition to the U.S., where she faces wire and bank fraud charges relating to trade sanctions violations. The U.S. Department of Justice has held talks with Meng’s legal team about a possible deferred prosecution agreement that would allow her to return to China. If there’s no resolution, the battle will continue in a British Columbia court — including a key set of hearings beginning in March to evaluate her claims of abuse of process. Final hearings on whether there’s enough evidence to order her extradition could start in April and extend to May.
Ollanta Humala, former president of Peru
Court: National Criminal Chamber, Supreme Court of Peru
Prosecutors have charged ex-Army officer Humala, who served as Peru’s president from 2011 to 2016, and his wife, Nadine Heredia, with money laundering as part of the region-wide scandal involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht S.A. Humala and Heredia were arrested in 2017 and imprisoned as charges were prepared, though they were released the following year by the country’s constitutional court. Prosecutors are seeking a 20-year sentence. The Odebrecht scandal has led to house arrest for two other former Peruvian presidents and charges against Humala’s presidential opponent Keiko Fujimori.
Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia
Court: Colombia Supreme Court
Uribe, president from 2002 to 2010, could be facing charges next year as well. Widely seen as Colombia’s most powerful leader in recent history, Uribe is under investigation over allegations that he employed intermediaries to visit imprisoned ex-members of illegal militias and pressure them into changing their testimony against him and instead smear opposition senator Ivan Cepeda, one of the former president’s biggest political foes.
The Cum-Ex Scandal
Courts: High Court in London and Wiesbaden Regional Court in Germany
A complex fraud that saw European governments defrauded of billions in tax revenue will see two big trials in 2021. In London, the first phase of a trial in a civil case brought by Danish tax authorities against Sanjay Shah, a hedge fund manager who allegedly oversaw a $2 billion scheme, will begin in March. In Germany, tax lawyer Hanno Berger and four bankers will stand trial over deals set up at Unicredit’s HVB unit to allegedly avoid taxes. More trials are also expected to start against bankers involved in the transactions at M.M.Warburg & Co, Bank J. Safra Sarasin AG and a German Maple Bank unit that went bust over the deals.
Crispin Odey, founding partner of Odey Asset Management
Court: Hendon Magistrates’ Court in London
Famously bearish hedge fund manager and prominent Brexit supporter Odey is due in court Feb. 17 to fight a criminal charge of indecent assault stemming from an incident during the summer of 1998. According to prosecutors, Odey invited a female banker, then in her 20s, to his London home, changed into a dressing gown and proceeded to “launch himself” at her. Odey, who denies the charge, has since stepped down from most of his roles at the fund that bears his name.
UBS Tax Penalty Appeal
Court: Court of Appeals of Paris
Originally scheduled for June 2020, UBS AG’s appeal of the record 4.5 billion-euro ($4.9 billion) penalty a French court imposed on the Swiss banking giant for helping wealthy French clients stash undeclared funds in offshore accounts was another major matter postponed by the pandemic. French appellate hearings are more like re-trials than their U.S. or U.K. analogues, and UBS will have three weeks starting on March 8 to convince a Paris panel to overturn, or reduce, the penalty.
Nicolas Sarkozy, former president of France
Court: High Court of Paris
The former president will face a second trial shortly after learning how he fared in his first. A Paris court said it would rule March 1 on Sarkozy’s first trial, which kicked off at the end of November and in which he faced accusations that he offered to pull strings for a now-retired court official in exchange for improper help in a legal dispute. On March 17, Sarkozy will be separately tried on charges that he illegally exceeded campaign-spending limits during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election bid.
Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of Volkswagen AG
Court: Braunschweig Regional Court in Germany
The criminal fraud trial against Winterkorn and four other former VW executives that begins on Feb. 25 stems from the Dieselgate scandal in which the company equipped vehicles with so-called defeat devices designed to falsely lower emissions readings to pass inspections. It is the main criminal prosecution to arise from the scandal, which has cost VW some 30 billion euros in regulatory penalties.
Beny Steinmetz, Israeli mining magnate
Court: Geneva Criminal Court
Steinmetz goes on trial Jan. 11 over charges that he paid bribes to the then wife of Guinea’s president to secure mining concessions for his company BSGR in the African nation. Steinmetz has been the subject of investigations in several countries but has consistently denied paying bribes or committing any other wrongdoing. BSGR’s attempts to secure mining rights in Guinea have also been at issue in a long-running dispute with former joint-venture partner Vale S.A., which was awarded $2 billion by a London arbitration panel last year.
Jacob Zuma, former president of South Africa
Court: Pietermaritzburg High Court
Zuma, who led South Africa for almost nine years before the ruling party forced him to step down in 2018, is facing charges that he took bribes from arms dealers, including Thales, in the 1990s. Prosecutors abandoned the case just before Zuma became president in 2009, but the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2017 reinstated the charges. Zuma is due to reappear in court on Feb. 23.
Diezani Alison-Madueke, former OPEC president and Nigerian oil minister
Court: Federal High Court in Abuja
Alison-Madueke, the first woman to head OPEC, is facing charges from Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission that she engaged in massive corruption while the country’s oil minister from 2010 to 2015, including handing out multibillion-dollar oil contracts to allies. The anti-graft agency said in 2017 that it had traced at least $615 million of illegally acquired cash and properties to the former minister, who has been living in the U.K. since 2015. Nigeria has so far failed to have Alison-Madueke extradited to face the charges, though she is also the subject of an investigation by British authorities. The judge overseeing the case in Abuja has scheduled the next hearing for March.
Jimmy Lai, Hong Kong-based media tycoon and pro-democracy activist
Court: West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court in Hong Kong
Lai, founder of Next Digital and publisher of the Apple Daily tabloid, has emerged as one of the Hong Kong’s most-outspoken critics of Beijing’s rule. He was charged in December with endangering national security by colluding with foreign forces under a controversial new law the Chinese government imposed on the territory in June. The next hearing on the case is scheduled for April.
Greg Kelly, former Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. executive
Court: Tokyo District Court
Kelly, who was arrested alongside former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn in 2018, is standing trial over allegations he helped his boss hide tens of millions of dollars in compensation. Kelly’s trial is widely seen as a proxy for the case against Ghosn, who dramatically fled house arrest in Japan smuggled aboard a private jet to Lebanon. Kelly says he acted legally as part of an effort to retain Ghosn, who is widely credited with turning Nissan around in the 1990s. The trial, which began in September, will conclude in the summer, with a verdict expected on July 6. Lengthy appeals are expected to follow.
Jay Y. Lee, co-vice chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.
Court: Seoul District Court and Seoul High Court
The grandson of the group’s founder, Lee is being tried in two different courts on charges including bribery and stock manipulation, as prosecutors scrutinize whether Lee used illegal means to help him take control of Samsung. The legal wrangling over stock manipulation charges could drag on for years while the higher court hearing on bribery charges could end early next year.
Najib Razak, former prime minister of Malaysia
Court: Court of Appeal of Malaysia
Razak, who is on bail after being sentenced to 12 years in jail in July on charges of corruption and money laundering in the 1MDB financial scandal, is expected to appeal his conviction early next year, with a hearing likely to take place in February. Malaysia’s prime minister from 2009 to 2018, Razak faces four more trials related to the scandal.
Tata v. Mistry
Court: Indian Supreme Court
India’s Supreme Court is expected to reach a final verdict next year in one of the country’s longest-running corporate feuds: the battle for the control of the $113 billion Tata group, which makes everything from software to cars, between ousted chairman Cyrus P. Mistry and the former mentor who pushed him out, Ratan N. Tata. Mistry is now seeking a $24-billion buyout. A verdict from the lower court could come in the first half of 2021 but is likely to be challenged and brought to the supreme court.
Reliance Industries v. Amazon.com
Court: Delhi High Court and Singapore International Arbitration Centre
Amazon brought an arbitration action in Singapore seeking to block its Indian partner, Future Group, from being acquired by Reliance for $3.4 billion. Future has since sued in Delhi to prevent Amazon from interfering with its deal with Reliance, which is India’s largest bricks-and-mortar retailer. At stake is potentially the future of India’s estimated $1 trillion consumer retail market.
(An earlier version of this story was corrected to fix the amount of fines paid by Volkswagen in the section on Martin Winterkorn.)
(Adds information on Cum-Ex investigations in Europe section)
--With assistance from Bob Van Voris, Karin Matussek, Gaspard Sebag, Young-Sam Cho, Kazunori Takada, Ravil Shirodkar, Unni Krishnan, William Clowes, John Quigley, Michael Cohen, Greg Stohr and Jef Feeley.
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