PARIS, (AFP):- A French court on Thursday acquitted former prime minister Edouard Balladur on corruption charges after he was accused of using kickbacks from an arms deal but handed a suspended jail term to his former defence minister.
The verdict by the Law Court of the Republic (CJR), which sits to try serving and former ministers for alleged violations committed in office, came just days after ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy was convicted for corruption.
Balladur, 91, had been accused of funnelling illicit commissions from arms deals to his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1995.
His former defence minister Francois Leotard, 78, was however convicted of complicity in the misuse of assets and handed a suspended two-year prison term and a fine of 100,000 euros ($120,000).
Neither was present in court for the verdict.
Balladur and Leotard, both right-wingers, were charged in 2017 with “complicity in the misuse of corporate assets” over the sale of submarines to Pakistan and frigates to Saudi Arabia between 1993 and 1995.
The verdicts came hot on the heels of a corruption conviction for former president Sarkozy on Monday which stunned France and has led to a debate about the extent of political corruption.
That judgement meant that both of the last heads of states from France’s right-wing party now called The Republicans (LR) — Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy — have criminal convictions.
Sarkozy has vowed to appeal and clear his name.
– Swiss cash –
The allegations against Balladur and Leotard came to light during an investigation into a 2002 bombing in Karachi, Pakistan, that targeted a bus transporting French engineers.
Fifteen people were killed in the attack, including 11 engineers working on the submarine contract, with the Al-Qaeda terror network initially suspected of carrying out the assault.
But the focus shifted and French investigators began to consider whether the bombing had been carried out as revenge for a halt in commission payments for the arms deals.
Balladur lost his 1995 presidential bid to rival Chirac who allegedly cut off the payments negotiated by the previous government.
Leotard was accused of having created an “opaque network” of intermediaries who took commissions on contracts signed with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and then paid back some of the money with illicit cash transfers.
Prosecutors alleged that the commissions totalled 550 million francs, or 117 million euros in today’s money, some of which was funnelled back to Balladur’s campaign.
At the centre of the case was a deposit of 10.25 million francs in cash made into Balladur’s campaign account three days after his electoral defeat in 1995.
Balladur claimed the money came from donations from supporters and merchandise sales, but prosecutors linked the money to cash withdrawals in Switzerland made by a Lebanese-French intermediary who took commissions on the arms deals.
Ziad Takieddine, long active in French right-wing circles, fled to Lebanon last June after a Paris court sentenced him and another middleman, Abdul Rahman El-Assir, to five years in prison over their role in the “Karachi” kickbacks.
Three others were also convicted but have announced appeals.
“I have a completely free conscience,” Balladur told the court during his interrogation.
Takieddine has also made — and retracted — claims that he delivered suitcases stuffed with cash from Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi to Sarkozy’s chief of staff to help with the ex-president’s 2007 presidential campaign.
Those claims are the subject of a separate investigation into Sarkozy.
– Combative Sarkozy –
On Monday, the 66-year-old ex-president was found to have formed a “corruption pact” with his lawyer Thierry Herzog to convince a judge to obtain and share information about yet another inquiry into his campaign financing.
Sarkozy, who has been dogged with investigations since leaving office in 2007, denies the charges and has vowed to clear his name with an appeal.
In two interviews Wednesday, he lambasted the verdict and said he was mulling filing a complaint with Europe’s top rights court.
“I never betrayed the trust of the French people,” France’s president from 2007 to 2012 told TF1 channel in a primetime interview on Wednesday evening.
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