PALMA DE MALLORCA, Spain (AFP) - Spain’s Princess Cristina and her husband went on trial Monday (Jan 11) under intense global media scrutiny in a landmark corruption case that has outraged the country and sullied the monarchy’s reputation.
Cristina, a 50-year-old mother-of-four with a master’s degree from New York University, is the first Spanish royal to face criminal charges in court since the monarchy was reinstated following the 1975 death of dictator General Francisco Franco.
The trial of the princess and the 17 other accused, including her husband, former Olympic handball medallist Inaki Urdangarin got underway at 9:20am (4.15pm Singapore time) at a makeshift courtroom in Palma on the palm-lined Mediterranean island of Mallorca, where the Spanish royals have a holiday home.
The royal couple arrived together an hour ahead of the start of legal proceedings, walking briskly into the building as photographers snapped pictures. But following courtroom rules, they had to sit apart as judges read out the alleged crimes committed by the suspects.
Cristina has been charged with tax evasion while her husband is accused of the more serious crimes of embezzlement, influence peddling, document falsification, money laundering and tax fraud. They have denied any wrongdoing.
Journalists from around the world have flocked to cover the trial, which was moved from a courthouse to a public administration school on the outskirts of Palma to accomodate the large number or reporters and lawyers.
The trial comes as Spain seethes over repeated corruption scandals that have exposed politicians, trade unions, bankers and footballers, eroding Spaniards’ faith in their institutions and elites after a major economic crisis and a government austerity drive.
“We have never had as much corruption in Spain’s democratic history,” said Francisco Solana, a 45-year-old unemployed masseur who protested outside the makeshift courtroom before the start of the trial. “No judge will dare send Princess Cristina to jail. I think justice is not equal for all, it favours the rich,” added Solana who was wrapped in a yellow, red and purple Spanish Republican flag.
The case is centred on business dealings by the Noos Institute, a charitable organisation based in Palma which Urdangarin founded and chaired from 2004 to 2006.
The 47-year-old and his former business partner Diego Torres are suspected of embezzling 6.2 million euros (S$9.69 million) in public funds paid by two regional governments to the organisation to stage sporting and other types of events.
Urdangarin is accused of using his royal connections to secure inflated contracts without competing bids and siphoning off some of the money into Aizoon, a firm he jointly ran with his wife Cristina to fund a lavish lifestyle.
The couple are suspected of using Aizoon for personal expenses including work on the couple’s mansion in Barcelona, trips to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, dance lessons and even Harry Potter books, which reduced the firm’s taxable profits, according to court filings.
The trial is expected to last six months. If convicted Cristina – who has denied knowledge of her husband’s activities – faces a jail term of up to eight years. Urdangarin faces more than 19 years in prison.
The corruption scandal and health woes prompted Cristina’s father Juan Carlos – who helped smooth Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s after the Franco dictatorship – to abdicate in 2014 in favour of his son Felipe to try to revive the scandal-hit monarchy.
King Felipe VI swiftly ordered palace accounts to be subject to an external audit and promised an honest and transparent monarchy.
Last year he stripped Cristina and her husband of their titles as Duke and Duchess of Palma, which Juan Carlos had given the couple when they had their glitzy wedding in 1997. The new king regularly tops popularity polls of public figures.
Torres, Urdangarin’s former business partner, has insisted that Juan Carlos and his advisers knew and approved of his son-in-law’s business dealings at the Noos Institute and has hundreds of emails that can prove it.
“The royal palace was informed, supervised, at at times even cooperated,” he said during an interview with private television La Sexta broadcast on Sunday night.