Fri, Oct 03, 2008 - Page 3 News List

French judge dismisses Lafayette case

NON Following seven years of inquiry, a French court said there were no grounds to substantiate claims of massive kickbacks to politicians, military officers and middlemen

AFP , PARIS

A French judge on Wednesday ordered the dismissal without trial of one of France’s biggest graft cases involving the 1991 sale of French warships to Taiwan, judicial sources said.

Judge Renaud van Ruymbeke found there were no grounds for a trial over accusations of massive kickbacks after prosecutors cited a lack of evidence.

France led a seven-year inquiry into claims that illegal commissions were paid to politicians, military officers and middlemen in Taiwan, China and France as part of a US$2.8 billion contract with Taiwan for six frigates.

French investigators wrapped up the probe in 2006, but complained they had been denied access by the government to top-secret defense files at the heart of the case.

State prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin in August requested that the case be dropped, saying the investigation had not “brought to light the existence of retro-commissions [kickbacks].”

The prosecutor said the probe had “not enabled the beneficiaries to be identified.”

The Taiwanese Navy bought the six Lafayette-class frigates from French defense company Thomson-CSF (now called Thales).

A 2001 investigation by Taiwan’s highest anti-graft body concluded that as much as US$400 million in kickbacks may have been paid throughout the course of the deal.

Thirteen military officers and 15 arms brokers in Taiwan were convicted of bribery and leaking military secrets in connection with the case and have been jailed.

In France, the scandal drew in a colorful cast of characters, including former foreign minister Roland Dumas, his then-mistress Christine Deviers-Joncour — whom he later dubbed “Mata Hari” — and Loik Le Floch-Prigent, the flamboyant former head of then state oil giant Elf.

Although Elf was not officially involved in the deal, it paid Deviers-Joncour to convince Dumas to drop his opposition to the sale. The former minister had feared it would strain Paris’ ties with Beijing.

The former minister, who was questioned in the case, claimed to know who received the alleged kickbacks, but accused governments of locking up documents that could have identified them.

Former finance ministers Laurent Fabius, Francis Mer and Thierry Breton invoked state secrecy laws to oppose the release of the documents sought by investigators.

Allegations of backhanders emerged after the body of Taiwanese Navy Captain Yin Ching-feng (尹清楓), who was opposed to the deal, was found floating in the sea off Ilan in 1993.

At the time, Yin ran the Taiwanese Navy’s weapons acquisitions office.

Further suspicions arose when Swiss courts discovered US$520 million in accounts held by businessman Andrew Wang (汪傳浦), the main suspect in the case.

Wang, dubbed “Mister Shampoo” for his supposed wizardry as a money launderer, was allegedly tasked with convincing Taiwan to buy the ships and renege on a nearly clinched deal with South Korea’s Hyundai.

Taiwan is still seeking the return of the US$520 million held in Wang’s Swiss accounts, but Switzerland in April rejected the request.

A total of US$900 million remain frozen by Swiss banks on suspicion of being bribes.

A Swiss court judgment concluded that bribes had been paid by Thomson-CSF to middlemen in the deal.

Taiwan is still seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation and interest from France. It argues that the under-the-table payments paid to ensure the deal that went through were explicitly forbidden by the contract.

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