Some of the top companies in international tunnelling have been charged with bribery over their alleged involvement in corruption on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project in southern Africa.

Leaba Thetsane, acting director of public prosecutions with the Lesotho government, named the firms as: the UK’s Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners; Impregilo, Italy; Dumez International, Sogreah, Spie Batignolles, Cegelec, and Coyne & Bellier – all of France; Lahmeyer International, Germany; Acres International, Canada; Swiss-Swedish conglomerate ABB; Concor and Group Five Holdings, South Africa; and two Panamanian firms, Universal Development Corp. and Electro Power Corp.

The companies were summonsed to appear before the magistrate’s court in Maseru, the Lesotho capital, at the end of November and early December. Most were present, although an arrest warrant was issued for Acres International representative James Griffiths, who failed to appear on November 29. The firms are among 12 firms and JVs originally implicated in the scandal.

The charges follow the conviction in October of Masupha Sole, former chief executive of the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority, on charges that he accepted about $1.2m worth of bribes. He must repay between $1.25m-1.8m. Court documents allege that some of the companies paid money to the two Panamanian firms, which then laundered the cash into Sole’s bank account.

Work on the first phase of the massive project, involving construction of a dam, and water diversion and supply tunnels, started in 1987. Phase 1 opened last year; the final phases are not due to be finished until 2017.

The World Bank, which provided substantial aid for the project, has pledged financial and technical help to the Lesotho judiciary to ensure there are sufficient resources to prosecute the case.