Judge probing Sarkozy case receives a bullet in the mail

BORDEAUX, France (AFP) - The judge who charged former president Nicolas Sarkozy with taking financial advantage of France's richest woman has received a bullet and a death threat in the post, say lawyers.

Judge Jean-Michel Gentil, the most prominent of three judges investigating the case, received the threatening letter together with blank cartridges on Wednesday, the magistrate's union SM said in a statement published on its website.

One of Judge Gentil's colleagues said the letter, which arrived at the judge's offices in Bordeaux, contained threats against other magistrates. Police had been called in to investigate, the colleague added.

The SM, in its online statement, denounced what it called "insulting statements" made by some of Mr Sarkozy's political allies which it said were designed to undermine the work of the judiciary.

It noted too that Mr Sarkozy's own lawyer Thierry Herzog had questioned Judge Gentil's impartiality.

The SM said a number of its members were targeted in the letter. Judge Gentil is not a member of the union, one colleague told AFP.

Mr Sarkozy's lawyers are attempting to overturn last week's decision by three examining magistrates to charge him in a case that threatens to destroy his hopes of a political comeback.

He has repeatedly denied claims he accepted cash-stuffed envelopes from the France's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt to fund his successful 2007 campaign.

Medical experts say the mental faculties of the L'Oreal heiress began to deteriorate in 2006.

Mr Sarkozy's lawyer Mr Herzog questioned Judge Gentil's impartiality in an interview with Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

Judge Gentil last June put his name to an opinion column signed by dozens of legal professionals in the leading newspaper Le Monde accusing Mr Sarkozy and his predecessor Jacques Chirac of "wishing to protect the corrupt", he pointed out.

Mr Herzog said that five days after signing the column, Judge Gentil ordered police to search Mr Sarkozy's home, office and his secretary's house.

A number of Mr Sarkozy's political supporters have also denounced the judge.

On Monday, Mr Sarkozy used his Facebook page to insist he had not taken advantage of Ms Bettencourt and vowed to clear his name.

With the right divided by in-fighting Mr Sarkozy had, in recent weeks, hinted that he was considering a return to the frontline of French politics.

He suggested in one interview that he could be forced to re-enter the fray out of a sense of duty to his country.

Last week's decision by the judges to put him under formal investigation dealt a blow to those hopes.

Mr Sarkozy could face up to three years in jail, a fine of 375,000 euros (S$596,000), and a five-year ban from public office if convicted.

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