French ex-PM Balladur on trial over 'Karachi affair' kickbacks

Mr Edouard Balladur joins a long list of senior French politicians pursued for alleged financial wrongdoing. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Former French prime minister Edouard Balladur goes on trial Tuesday (Jan 19) on charges that he used kickbacks from arms deals in the 1990s to fund a presidential bid, a case known as the "Karachi affair".

Mr Balladur, 91, joins a long list of senior French politicians pursued for alleged financial wrongdoing, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his predecessor, Mr Jacques Chirac.

The conservative former premier will be tried by the Court of Justice of the Republic in Paris, a tribunal dedicated to hearing cases of ministerial misconduct.

Also in the dock will be his former defence minister Francois Leotard, 78, though his presence at the trial's opening is uncertain because of illness.

Mr Balladur will appear in court Tuesday "to face his judges and answer their questions", his lawyer Felix de Belloy said.

The two men were charged in 2017 with "complicity in the misuse of corporate assets" over the sale of submarines to Pakistan and frigates to Saudi Arabia between 1993 and 1995, when Mr Balladur was prime minister in the final years of Mr Francois Mitterrand's presidency.

The kickbacks are estimated at 13 million francs, now worth some €2.8 million (S$4.5 million), after accounting for inflation.

The sum is believed to have included a cash injection of about 10 million francs to Mr Balladur's 1995 unsuccessful presidential campaign against Mr Chirac.

Mr Balladur, who also has to answer to a charge that he concealed the crimes, has denied any wrongdoing, saying the 10 million francs came from the sale of T-shirts and other items at campaign rallies.

The claims came to light during an investigation into a 2002 bombing in Karachi, Pakistan, which targeted a bus transporting French engineers.

Fifteen people were killed, including 11 engineers working on the submarine contract.

The Al-Qaeda terror network was initially suspected of the attack.

But the focus later shifted to the arms deal as investigators considered whether the bombing may have been revenge for Mr Chirac's decision to halt the commission payments for the arms deals shortly after he beat Mr Balladur in the presidential vote.

Six already sentenced

Mr Leotard is accused of having created an "opaque network" of intermediaries for the contracts signed with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The former premier also stands charged with instructing the budget ministry - led at the time by Mr Sarkozy - to approve state guarantees for "deficient or underfunded" contracts, because of the alleged kickbacks.

Investigators say that cash deposits in Mr Balladur's campaign fund coincided with trips to Switzerland by Mr Ziad Takieddine, a Lebanese-French intermediary who has long been active in French rightwing circles.

Mr Takieddine fled to Lebanon last June after a Paris court sentenced him and another middleman, Abdul Rahman El-Assir, to five years in prison over their role in the "Karachi" kickbacks.

Mr Balladur's former campaign manager Nicolas Bazire was given a three-year sentence by the same court, as did Mr Leotard's adviser Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres.

Mr Thierry Gaubert, an adviser to Mr Sarkozy at the Finance Ministry, and a former executive at state-owned naval contractor DCN (since renamed Naval Group) got two-year sentences. All have appealed the rulings.

Mr Takieddine told judges in 2013 that he participated in the secret financing of Mr Balladur's campaign after being asked by Mr Bazire and Mr Gaubert, though he retracted the claim six years later.

In November, Mr Takieddine also took back his claim that he delivered suitcases carrying a total of €5 million (S$8 million) from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to Mr Sarkozy's chief of staff in 2006 and 2007, to help his successful presidential campaign.

Mr Sarkozy has denied the allegations, and investigations into the case are continuing.

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