France’s former elite go on trial over arms trade

The son of a former French president, an Israeli-Russian billionaire and a tycoon with ties to Arizona’s jet set were among the headliners yesterday as 42 defendants went on trial in Paris, accused in a worldwide web of trafficked arms to Angola, money laundering and kickbacks.

Defense lawyers and Angola’s government are trying to stop the show, however, arguing the trial has no right to go on.

Prosecutors allege that between 1993 and 1998, two key suspects – French magnate Pierre Falcone, a longtime resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, and Arkady Gaydamak, an Israeli businessman based in France at the time – organized a total of $791 million in Russian arms sales to Angola, a breach of French government rules.

Most of the other suspects are accused of receiving money or gifts, undeclared to tax authorities, from a company run by Falcone in exchange for political or commercial favors. Investigators say the corruption grew into a tangle of laundered money and parallel diplomacy that left a stain on France’s relations with Africa.

Among the defendants who filed into a Paris courthouse Monday were icons of France’s political elite – including late President Francois Mitterrand’s eldest son, Jean-Christophe, and an economic adviser to current President Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Attali.

They navigated past throngs of journalists and human rights activists to reach the suspects’ stands in the stuffy courtroom. Most of the defendants were on hand with the notable exception of Gaydamak, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant.

Gaydamak’s lawyer, William Goldnadel, said his client – a candidate for mayor of Jerusalem – did not want to do prison time and was planning to travel to Paris for the proceedings next month.

“My client is not a dishonest man. He’s not an arms vendor,” Goldnadel told reporters.

Judges read out the list of defendants and charges, based on a 468-page indictment that took investigators seven years to nail down. The reading took most of the day.

Lawyers for Falcone and Gaydamak argue there is no reason to pursue the case in a French court because the weapons never transited French territory. But prosecutors cite the use of a French bank and French companies in the deals.

The case has rankled Angola’s leadership. A lawyer representing the country, Francis Teitgen, said Monday he would seek to have the trial called off “to protect the rights attached to its sovereignty.” Angola considers many documents used by the prosecution to be defense secrets, Teitgen said. Neither Angola nor any of its citizens is a party to case.

A lawyer for Jean-Christophe Mitterrand insisted in comments published Monday in the daily Le Parisien that his client never received bribes – only payment for advising Falcone’s company about Angola. Mitterrand was his father’s Africa adviser in the years preceding the arms deals.

Asked in court to confirm his identity, Mitterrand, 61, told the judge that he lives at his mother’s apartment on Paris’ Left Bank. “I have no income, I have no real estate assets,” he said.

Another defendant, former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, said Monday that he had nothing to do with the events in question. He said the case was trumped up to thwart him from running for president in 2002. Pasqua is charged with “passive arms trafficking” and “receiving misused funds.”

The 81-year-old Pasqua, Gaydamak, 56, Falcone, 54, and Mitterrand, face a maximum of 10 years in prison and thousands of euros in fines if convicted.

Most of the other defendants are accused primarily of “receiving misused funds;” the voluminous indictment describes envelopes of cash changing hands and a shopping list of Kalashnikov rifles, land mines and tanks.

Angola’s 1979-2002 civil war served as a Cold War proxy conflict between the Marxist army of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, backed by Cuban soldiers, and the forces of U.S.- and South Africa-backed rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

The trial is expected to last until March.

By Angela Charlton and Pierre-Antoine Souchard, Associated Press Writers
Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Source: The Independent

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