Sat, Oct 14, 2006 - Page 3 News List

French Lafayette probe proves to be inconclusive

LACK OF EVIDENCE Successive French governments have refused to give magistrates access to secret files which would identify those at the center of the case

AFP , PARIS

Magistrates in France have ended a five-year probe into alleged kickbacks paid to French officials for the US$2.8 billion sale of frigates to Taiwan, without getting to the bottom of the affair, legal officials said on Thursday.

But the case, alleged to be the biggest French corruption scandal in the last 50 years, may never come to court.

This is because successive French governments have refused to give the two investigating magistrates access to top-secret defense files that would have identified those at the center of the complex case.

The parties involved were informed of the magistrates' decision on Wednesday and have 20 days in which to request further action, said the officials, who declined to be identified.

The files will then be handed over to the state prosecutor general, who will make recommendations on how to proceed.

But given the government's refusal to release the defense files, the magistrates may well have to drop the case for lack of evidence.

The inquiry, launched in 2001, centred on accusations that a substantial proportion of the US$2.8 billion paid by Taiwan in 1991 for six French-made frigates went on commissions to middlemen, politicians and military officers in Taiwan, China and France.

Allegations of backhanders emerged after the body of the officer who ran the navy's weapons acquisitions office was found floating in the sea off the east coast in 1993.

Further suspicions arose when courts in Switzerland discovered US$520 million in accounts held by the businessman Andrew Wang (汪傳浦) and various members of his family. Wang, the main suspect, was allegedly tasked with convincing Taiwan to buy the ships.

But the probe ran aground on Oct. 4 when French Economy Minister Thierry Breton refused to declassify documents requested by investigating magistrates Renaud van Ruymbeke and Xaviere Simeoni.

The refusal was the fourth time in five years that Paris had blocked the investigation, on the grounds that the documents contained defense secrets.

The customs documents requested contain the names of Chinese and Taiwanese officials who received commissions relating to the deal.

The contract for the sale of the warships explicitly banned payments to intermediaries.

If it was proved that secret kickbacks were indeed handed out to clinch the deal, Paris could be forced to compensate Taiwan to the tune of nearly one billion euros (US$1.25 billion), according to former French judge Thierry Jean-Pierre.

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