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Sarkozy to go on trial as final appeal fails

Updated June 20, 2019

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In this file photo taken on May 4, French former President Nicolas Sarkozy is pictured as he attends a football match at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. — AFP
In this file photo taken on May 4, French former President Nicolas Sarkozy is pictured as he attends a football match at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. — AFP

PARIS: France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy is to go on trial facing charges of corruption and influence peddling after losing his final bid to avert appearing in the dock, sources close to the case said on Wednesday.

The Court of Cassation, which rules on questions of law, said that a trial was justified for Sarkozy as well as his lawyer Thierry Herzog and former judge Gilbert Azibert.

The ruling was Sarkozy’s last hope of preventing the trial coming to court and the French judicial authorities have now approved sending the case to a criminal tribunal, according to a source close to the case.

The trial will begin in the next months in Paris although a date has yet to be set, added the source who asked not to be named.

Sarkozy, 64, is not the first ex-president to be prosecuted — his predecessor Jacques Chirac was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzlement and misuse of public funds during his time as mayor of Paris.

But it is the first time in the history of modern France that a former leader will face explicit corruption charges in court.

The influence-peddling case centres on conversations between Herzog and Azibert that were tapped by investigators looking into claims that Sarkozy accepted illicit payments from the L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.

They suspect Sarkozy and his lawyer were seeking information on developments in the case, with Sarkozy offering Azibert a plum job in Monaco in exchange.

The inquiry also revealed that Sarkozy and Herzog often communicated via mobile phones obtained under false identities — with Sarkozy using the name Paul Bismuth.

He was cleared over the Bettencourt allegations in 2013, and has argued he should not face trial because Azibert never got the Monaco job.

But investigators believe the deal fell through because Sarkozy and his lawyer learned their phones were being tapped.

Sarkozy’s defence lawyers, basing their arguments on a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling, have argued that such wiretapped transcriptions can be used only against lawyers and not their clients.

“It will be up to the court now to say if a French institution can free itself of a decision by the ECHR,” Sarkozy’s lawyer Jacqueline Laffont said.

Sarkozy, who lost the presidency in 2012 elections to his socialist rival Francois Hollande after serving just one term, has seen his post-Elysee life over the last years disturbed by a litany of legal problems.

In 2014, Sarkozy became the first former French president to be taken into police custody during a preliminary stage of the inquiry.

Last month, a top court rejected an appeal to avoid another trial, involving charges of illicit financing for the 2012 campaign.

Prosecutors claim Sarkozy spent nearly 43 million euros ($48 million) on his lavish re-election bid — almost double the legal limit of 22.5 million euros — using fake invoices.

He has denounced the charges, saying he was unaware of the fraud by executives at the public relations firm Bygmalion, who are among 13 people also likely to face trial.

Sarkozy has also been charged over accusations he accepted millions of euros from the late Libyan dictator Moamer Qadhafi towards his first presidential campaign in 2007.

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2019