The UK Serious Fraud Office has suffered a crushing defeat in its high-profile seven-year case against three former top executives at Barclays after they were all cleared of fraud charges relating to deals they made with Qatar during the financial crisis.

The three defendants — Roger Jenkins, Tom Kalaris and Richard Boath — were acquitted after a five-month retrial at the Old Bailey in London. This was the first criminal trial to examine steps taken by senior bankers during the financial crisis in the UK.

The jury took just over five hours to acquit Mr Jenkins, who managed Barclays’ relationship with Qatar and the Gulf state’s prime minister; Mr Kalaris, the American head of the bank’s wealth unit in 2008; and Mr Boath, its investment banking unit’s European co-head of financial institutions. The SFO had alleged the three had lied to the market in official documents detailing two emergency cash calls in 2008, which helped the bank avoid a taxpayer bailout by raising £11.2bn. The men denied wrongdoing.

They stood in the dock with their heads bowed as the jury foreman read out the verdicts and exchanged glances and smiled after the verdicts were delivered.

Mr Kalaris and Mr Jenkins left court quickly after the verdicts. Mr Boath addressed the media briefly outside the Central Criminal Court and said he was very surprised the SFO had brought the case after he had already been cleared of wrongdoing in respect of the fundraising by the financial regulator.

“I’m delighted and relieved with this verdict, having been cleared by the FCA in July 2017. The SFO case was an invention and should never have been brought,” he said.

He added that the past six years had been “tough”. “There are ups and downs and today is a big up.”

Mr Jenkins later said in a statement: “I am very grateful that the jury, who sat through five months of evidence and speeches, concluded, what I have known to be true all along, that I did nothing wrong 12 years ago in 2008.”

The acquittals follow that of John Varley, Barclays’ chief executive in 2008, who was cleared by a judge during an earlier trial last year. Fraud charges against Barclays as a corporate defendant were scrubbed even before trial.

The verdicts deal a significant blow to the SFO, which has spent about £10m on its flagship prosecution, even before legal fees from two five-month trials and numerous pre-trial hearings are taken into account.

Mr Varley was first chief executive of a major bank anywhere in the world to face a jury trial over steps taken during the financial crisis.

In a retrial of the remaining trio, the SFO did not call any live witnesses, relying on email trails and taped phone calls from the defendants.

Michael O’Kane, senior partner at Peters & Peters, who represented Mr Boath said: “What was the SFO doing spending millions prosecuting Mr Boath, when he had been cleared of exactly the same conduct by the FCA? The new attorney-general should conduct a thorough review as to why the SFO repeatedly demonstrates such poor judgment.”

The failure to achieve any convictions will reignite criticism about the agency’s handling of allegations of complex fraud at the highest levels, as well as a broader debate on whether the UK’s complex fraud laws — particularly around corporate criminal liability — are fit for purpose.

The fraud agency alleged the Barclays defendants had funnelled secret fees of £322m to Qatar and its powerful prime minister at the time, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, in exchange for investment across two fundraisings in June and October 2008.

The charges — carrying a 10-year-maximum sentence — turned on a so-called advisory services agreement, or ASA, signed with Qatar at the time of the June fundraising, and extended in October. The original ASA, signed by Mr Varley, was just six paragraphs long and had the amount handwritten.

The SFO alleged that the ASA was a dishonest mechanism to pay the hard-bargaining Qataris the outsize fees they demanded for investing.

However, the defendants maintained the side deals were genuine, signed off by lawyers, and designed to help expand Barclays’ Middle Eastern business and get valuable banking business from gas-rich Qatar.

The trial lifted the lid on the febrile atmosphere as markets roiled in 2008 and Barclays did everything possible to avoid government control.

The SFO attempted to use conversations between the men — heard to speak about not wanting to go to jail or “get rumbled” — as evidence that the men knew what they were doing was wrong.

In one call, Mr Kalaris, dubbed the “quarterback” to get the capital raisings over the line, told Mr Boath: “None of us wants to go to jail here . . . The food sucks and the sex is worse.”

The SFO said in a statement: “Our prosecution decisions are always based on the evidence that is available, and we are determined to bring perpetrators of serious financial crime to justice. Wherever our evidential and public interest tests are met, we will always endeavour to bring this before a court.”

Lawyers for Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani said in a statement that the SFO’s case against the defendants “included the incorrect claim” that the service agreements were not genuine. “The Qatari parties always anticipated that the retrial would show this claim to be untrue and they are of course pleased that this has happened and that the true position has now been made entirely clear.”

Barclays declined to comment.

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