Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bomb victim’s daughter presses for Sarkozy corruption inquiry

PRESIDENT Sarkozy’s 2012 re-election bid could be hit by allegations of illegal kick-backs and irregular arms dealing – which campaigners believe led to the deaths of 11 French workers in a 2002 bomb attack.

I spoke exclusively to Sandrine Leclerc, daughter of one of the victims.

Nicolas Sarkozy is being urged to explain his involvement in a potentially highly damaging 17-year-old corruption scandal involving suspected kickbacks from arms sales to Pakistan.

Investigators suspect the alleged kickbacks were used to fund a failed presidential campaign Mr Sarkozy ran for his mentor and ally, former Prime Minister Eduoard Balladur.

The case – known as L’Affaire Karachi – centres on a bomb attack in the Pakistani city which killed 11 French naval workers in 2002.

Investigators are looking at claims the bombing was motivated by anger at then president Jacques Chirac’s decision to stop huge commissions on the €800m arms deal being paid to Pakistani officials and middlemen.

Chirac suspected kickbacks from the deal supplying Pakistan with three Agosta submarines were used to finance Balladur’s political activities. Chirac had beaten Balladur, his bitter political rival, in the 1995 presidential election.

Sandrine Leclerc, daughter of one of the attack victims and co-author of On Nous Appelle Les Karachi (They Call Us the Karachis), spoke to The Connexion about the expanding investigation into the affair that saw two of Sarkozy’s close allies arrested in September.

Mrs Leclerc said: “We are encouraged by recent developments which support our conviction that political corruption and the stopping of commission payments linked to the Agosta contracts were excellent motives for the deaths of our loved ones.”

In September, police arrested Thierry Gaubert, a financial advisor to Sarkozy in 1994-1995 when he was Balladur’s budget minister and campaign treasurer. Mr Gaubert is being investigated over links to a Franco-Lebanese businessman, Ziad Takieddine, who is charged with fraud over the submarine sales to Pakistan.

Sarkozy’s special advisor and former Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, is the subject of another investigation into whether he unlawfully obtained information from an investigation into the affair and then contacted Mr Gaubert before his arrest.

Transcripts of telephone conversations published in French newspapers are said to indicate Mr Hortefeux warned Mr Gaubert that his wife had “given up a lot” when questioned by investigators.

Police also arrested Sarkozy’s close friend Nicolas Bazire, who was in charge of Balladur’s private office and presidential campaign director.

A witness at Mr Sarkozy’s 2008 wedding to Carla Bruni, he is accused of complicity in the misuse of public money.

The lawyer for the victims’ families, Olivier Morice, said these developments had created “panic at the highest levels of the state.”

Mrs Leclerc also wants Sarkozy to clarify his role in the setting up of Luxembourg company Heine, which victims’ families and investigating judges suspect was used to channel tens of millions of francs in kickbacks into Balladur’s campaign coffers.

“We want to know why Mr Sarkozy would set up a shadow company in a tax haven to channel commissions if they were legal. We believe complex and inventive financial schemes were devised to manage kickbacks.”

The investigative website Mediapart has quoted a Luxembourg police report linking Sarkozy to the setting up of two Luxembourg companies at the time, including Heine.

Mrs Leclerc also wants the Conseil Constitutionnel France’s highest constitutional authority, to make public its deliberations concerning Balladur’s presidential campaign finances.

His accounts were rejected by the body because of the movement of suspect quantities of cash, but they were later validated by then committee president, Roland Dumas.

Sarkozy has angrily denied allegations of kickbacks and irregularities in Balladur’s campaign financing and has repeatedly promised to hand over all relevant documents.

“He hasn’t kept any of his promises: to hand over documents; to keep victims’ families informed; to meet with us – we’ve had everything but his support,” Mrs Leclerc said, referring to undertakings Mr Sarkozy made to families during their only meeting with him in 2008.

The families achieved “an important step forward” last month, when the Conseil Constitutionnel ruled documents relating to the Karachi attack, which the government had withheld due to military confidentiality, should be handed over.

The committee said the rules surrounding state defence secrets were too restrictive and that this was preventing judges from carrying out their investigation.

Mrs Leclerc said the victims’ families had been hampered in their search for the truth from the beginning, at every turn and from the highest levels.

“After the bombing, we were encircled by government officials. It was bizarre. We were told what to do and think. We were told Al-Qaeda was responsible. A lawyer was imposed on families.

“I never saw the lawyer. It turned out he was the lawyer for the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. He bluntly told my co-author, Magali Drouet, to ‘get over it’.”

The families hired lawyer Olivier Morice in 2008 when Mediapart and Le Point published details of a 2002 government report which concluded that the bombing was probably linked to the ending of commission payments on the Agosta contracts – an opinion shared by the current judge investigating the attack, Marc Trévidic.

The judge initially appointed to investigate the bombing, Jean-Louis Brugière, maintained for six years that the attack was the work of Al-Qaeda.

“Bruguière told families that the attack was certainly the work of Al-Qaeda, though he had evidence to the contrary.

“We would have been happier if the bombing had been the work of Al-Qaeda. The idea that our loved ones died because of a political financing scandal is grotesque,” Mrs Leclerc said.

Victims’ families want Mr Bruguière, who retired in 2008, to answer accusations that he obstructed the course of justice by failing to reveal to families the doubts of French pathologists who conducted an autopsy on the presumed bomber.

Mrs Leclerc said the families are also considering laying a complaint of manslaughter against Chirac and former prime minister Dominique de Villepin if they suspected retribution would follow the decision to stop Agosta commission payments.

Mr de Villepin has asked to be heard by the judge investigating the Agosta deal, Renaud Van Ruymbeke, reputed to be one of France’s most ruthless independent investigative judges.

Mrs Leclerc said the Legion of Honour medal posthumously awarded to her father had been buried in anger “somewhere in the garden” by her mother. “My father didn’t die for France. He probably died because politicians put their own financial and career interests before the safety of French defence workers,” she said.

First published in The Connexion (December, 2011)

Monday, January 2, 2012

My ultimate New Year's resolution for wine Tour de France

IF YOU USE the Mayan calendar, you will know that it’s coming to the end of its 5,125-year cycle this year. If you’re also inclined to apocalyptic thinking, you might assume that the Mayan calendar’s expiration heralds the actual end of days, too. Why risk assuming the end isn’t nigh? I resolve this year to try the best wines from France’s 12 wine-growing regions and treat myself to bottles from legendary producers. Call it a “wine bucket list”. Those who anticipate an 'end of the world  moment' typically refer to the period afterwards as “the Great Disappointment”. But if you follow my advice, you won’t be disappointed. You will, however, be penniless. 

Full article first published in The Connexion (January, 2012)