PARIS: 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 of corruption.
Balladur, 91, had been accused of funneling 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.
The allegations against Balladur and Leotard came to light during an investigation into a 2002 bombing in Karachi 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 totaled 550 million francs, or 117 million euros in today’s money, some of which was funneled 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.
Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2021