Dominique de Villepin, accused of using falsified information to discredit arch-rival Nicolas Sarkozy during his presidential bid, has been cleared by a criminal court in Paris. Three others charged in the conspiracy were found guilty.
Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was cleared on Thursday of being part of a conspiracy to discredit arch-rival Nicolas Sarkozy and sabotage his campaign to become president in 2007.
The verdict in the so-called Clearstream case represents a sharp blow to Sarkozy, who had made no secret of his enmity towards the aristocratic de Villepin when the two served together in the government of ex-President Jacques Chirac.
De Villepin, who became prime minister in 2005 after stints as foreign and interior minister, was accused of using faked documents to link Sarkozy to a corruption probe as the two angled to succeed the ageing Chirac.
De Villepin always denied the charges and said repeatedly that he was a victim of a vendetta by Sarkozy, who won power triumphantly in the 2007 election.
A judge said in a ruling read out to the court that there was no clear evidence that de Villepin had tried to smear Sarkozy.
Three defendants found guilty
Three other defendants, including Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former top executive at aerospace group EADS, were all found guilty of conspiracy in the case.
Florian Bourges, a former Arthur Andersen auditor who obtained the original documents, was found guilty of theft and breach of trust, but the journalist Denis Robert, to whom he gave them and who later showed them to Imad Lahoud, was cleared.
Gregorin and Lahoud were both given three-year jail terms for their role in the conspiracy. They will have to serve 15 and 18 months, respectively, of their sentences before they can be considered for parole.
De Villepin triumphant
The verdict was a personal triumph for de Villepin, who had been accused of being instrumental in a plot to damage Sarkozy by having the faked documents handed to magistrates investigating a bribe-ridden arms deal with Taiwan in the 1990s.
The forgeries listed Sarkozy's name along with dozens of others from France's business and political elite, purportedly tying them to secret accounts held at a Luxembourg-based securities clearing house, Clearstream.
De Villepin admitted during the investigation that he knew of the documents, but the court found no evidence to prove that he knew they had been faked, which meant he could not be convicted on the charge he faced.
The former prime minister holds no elected post and works as a lawyer. He still has supporters on the centre-right, however, and members of his inner circle have said he should challenge Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election.
Speaking after judgement, de Villepin said he was relieved and wanted to move forward and restart a political career stalled by the case.
"Justice has been served. After several years of hardship, my innocence has been recognized," he said. "I want to turn the page."
In an obvious reference to Nicolas Sarkozy, he added: "It has hurt me to see some try to tarnish the image of French politics and of my 30 years of work.
"I want to look toward the future in order to serve the French people and to bring together and lift up our country."
Date created : 2010-01-28