Ex-French president Sarkozy hit with new Libya financing charge

AFP , Saturday 17 Oct 2020

French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during the signature of 10 billion euros’ worth of trade contracts between the two countries at the Élysée Palace in Paris on December 10, 2007. AFP

French prosecutors said that they had charged former president Nicolas Sarkozy over claims he accepted cash from the Libyan slain leader Moamer Kadhafi for his 2007 election campaign.

The charge for "membership in a criminal conspiracy" was brought on Monday after more than 40 hours of questioning over four days, prosecutors told AFP on Friday.

It adds to charges already filed in 2018 of "accepting bribes," "benefitting from embezzled public funds" and "illegal campaign financing".

The latest charge, which can still be appealed, increases the chance of a trial for Sarkozy, who is already poised to become the first former French president in the dock on corruption charges.

Prosecutors suspect that Sarkozy and his associates received tens of millions of euros from Kadhafi's regime to help finance his election bid.

Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, has denied any wrongdoing, saying on his Facebook page Friday that his "innocence has been tarnished" by the charges, without "even the slightest proof."

"I answered every question I was asked without ever being put in difficulty," he said, referring to the recent grilling by prosecutors. "I know that justice will triumph in the end."

- Suitcases of cash? -

Sarkozy, 65, has been under pressure since 2012, when the investigative website Mediapart published a document purporting to show that Kadhafi agreed to give Sarkozy up to 50 million euros ($59 million at current rates).

The two leaders enjoyed surprisingly cordial ties, with Sarkozy letting the Libyan strongman pitch his Bedouin tent opposite the Elysee Palace on a state visit to France just months after his election.

But four years later, in 2011, Sarkozy was a driving force behind the international military invention that drove Kadhafi from power.

Sarkozy, a trained lawyer, has fought the claims of Libya cash by claiming presidential immunity, and by arguing there is no legal basis in France for prosecuting someone for misusing funds from a foreign country.

Judges are also investigating claims by a French-Lebanese businessman, Ziad Takieddine, who said he delivered suitcases carrying a total of five million euros from the Libyan regime to Sarkozy's chief of staff in 2006 and 2007.

After seven years of investigation efforts resulting in witness statements from Libyan officials, members of Kadhafi's secret service and from middlemen, prosecutors believe they can show that Sarkozy's campaign was indeed financed by Kadhafi.

But legal experts have said the charges may hinge on circumstantial evidence rather than the sort of ironclad proof of Sarkozy's guilt that would ensure a conviction.

Sarkozy's former ministers Claude Gueant and Eric Woerth are also charged in the case, which is not the only legal headache for the former rightwing president, who is no longer active in politics.

- Two trials set -

Sarkozy has faced a litany of legal woes since leaving office, being charged in two other cases, including one relating to fake invoices orchestrated by executives of the Bygmalion public relations firm to mask overspending on his failed 2012 re-election campaign.

In that case, he is accused of using fake invoices to spend nearly double the legal limit of 22.5 million euros ($26.6 million), and risks up to a year in prison if convicted during a trial set for March.

In a third case, Sarkozy faces charges of trying to obtain classified information from a judge on an inquiry into claims that he accepted illicit payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.

In exchange, Sarkozy allegedly offered the now-retired judge, Gilbert Azibert, a cushy job in Monaco.

That trial is set to open on November 23.

Sarkozy was cleared over the Bettencourt allegations in 2013, but investigators believe the only reason the financial deal fell through is because Sarkozy -- using the code name "Paul Bismuth" -- and his lawyer learned their phones were being tapped.

French media later reported that the real Paul Bismuth was a former school mate of Sarkozy's lawyer Thierry Herzog.

Sarkozy has long accused the French judiciary of hounding him, and announced in 2018 that for him "politics is finished".

Yet despite his legal woes, he has enjoyed a surge in popularity and strong sales for his latest memoirs, "The Time of Storms", which recounts the first two years of his presidency.

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