Major gunrunning, graft trial opens in Paris

AP , PARIS

Wed, Oct 08, 2008 - Page 6

The son of a former French president, an Israeli-Russian billionaire and a tycoon with ties to Arizona’s jet set were among the headliners as 42 defendants went on trial in Paris, accused in a worldwide web of trafficked arms to Angola, money laundering and kickbacks.

Defense lawyers and Angola’s government are trying to stop the show, however, arguing the trial has no right to go on.

Prosecutors allege that between 1993 and 1998, two key suspects — French magnate Pierre Falcone, a longtime resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, and Arkady Gaydamak, an Israeli businessman based in France at the time — organized a total of US$791 million in Russian arms sales to Angola, a breach of French government rules.

Most of the other suspects are accused of receiving money or gifts, undeclared to tax authorities, from a company run by Falcone in exchange for political or commercial favors. Investigators say the corruption grew into a tangle of laundered money and parallel diplomacy that left a stain on France’s relations with Africa.

Among the defendants who filed into a Paris courthouse Monday were icons of France’s political elite — including late president Francois Mitterrand’s eldest son, Jean-Christophe, and an economic adviser to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Attali.

They navigated past throngs of journalists and human rights activists to reach the suspects’ stands in the stuffy courtroom.

Most of the defendants were on hand with the notable exception of Gaydamak, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant.

Gaydamak’s lawyer, William Goldnadel, said his client — a candidate for mayor of Jerusalem — did not want to do prison time and was planning to travel to Paris for the proceedings next month.

Judges read out the list of defendants and charges, based on a 468-page indictment that took investigators seven years to nail down.

The reading took most of the day.

Lawyers for Falcone and Gaydamak argue there is no reason to pursue the case in a French court because the weapons never transited French territory. But prosecutors cite the use of a French bank and French companies in the deals.

The case has rankled Angola’s leadership. A lawyer representing the country, Francis Teitgen, said on Monday he would seek to have the trial called off “to protect the rights attached to its sovereignty.”