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Backstage at the Clearstream trial

Text by Catherine NORRIS-TRENT

Latest update : 2009-10-07

FRANCE 24's Catherine Norris-Trent is one of many journalists who have descended upon the Paris criminal court to cover the Clearstream trial. Read more about the proceedings both in front of and behind the camera.

Tuesday 6th October

Another day, another protagonist giving his version of events in the Clearstream trial. Tuesday, it's the turn of Renaud van Ruymbeke, the French investigative judge who received the faked account listings in a series of anonymous letters through the post back in 2004. The passing of the listings to a member of the judiciary for investigation is a key moment in the alleged defamation plot, since the charges hinge on the fact that the false information was circulated.

Judge Van Ruymbeke has always denied playing an active role in the Clearstream affair, and that was very much the stance he took again today in court. He shed very little new light on proceedings but instead reaffirmed that he'd always acted within the law and had never asked or arranged for the listings to be sent to him.

Van Ruymbeke did, however, admit meeting up with the man who sent the letter, one of the defendants in the case, Jean-Louis Gergorin.

Judge Van Ruymbeke's tone was very much that of a man seeking to distance himself from this whole affair: dismissive and annoyed. He repeatedly insisted that he really didn't know that much or couldn't remember minute details, because he simply hadn't been that interested.

There was also a hint of anger in his voice. In the past, Van Ruymbeke has stated furiously that he'd been manipulated, and he's also faced considerable professional pressure over his connection to the case. A judicial body investigated whether he acted properly in connection with Clearstream, and a ruling on that is pending until after this trial concludes.

Once Van Ruymbeke finished giving evidence and being questioned, he stayed for most of the rest of the day. He took a seat alone at the back left-hand side of the courtroom where the court cartoonists sometimes sit.

Late in the afternoon, it was announced that a "legal confrontation" between General Philippe Rondot and Dominique de Villepin wouldn't take place this Tuesday, due to a lack of time. General Rondot was told he could go home and asked to return late the following afternoon.

After this, the press benches gradually emptied as journalists who'd been hoping to witness the showdown left the court.

Monday 5th October

The court has had the weekend off following Dominique de Villepin's day in the dock, but the atmosphere today is almost as highly charged as it was for that big event.

The excitement is because General Phillipe Rondot is due to appear as a witness. The former intelligence officer's notebooks were seized by judges investigating this case, and his evidence makes up the backbone of the prosecution's case.

The anticipation is also due to the fact that General Rondot, as you'd expect with an intelligence officer, has kept a very low profile throughout his long career, rarely giving interviews or speaking in public. So this is a chance to hear from a man who was in the inner circles of France's secret services.

It's also General Rondot's 73rd birthday, but he's not set to spend much of the day celebrating. The court hearings in the Clearstream case start at 1:30 pm, and often run on until late in the evening.

The defendants arrive, but today not much interest is shown in them (excepting Dominique de Villepin).

Everyone's eager to get a glimpse, or perhaps even hear from General Rondot. But he enters court silently, not once looking towards the throngs of cameramen who are frantically calling his name. Incidentally, the general used the same side entrance, protected from the press by metal barriers, as did Dominique de Villepin.

Inside the court, the general stands up stock straight, as you'd expect from a former military man, with his hands clasped behind his back. He gives his evidence in a small, rather husky voice. The courtroom is packed today, almost as busy as last week when de Villepin delivered his evidence.

And unusually, at the beginning of proceedings at least, the chamber listens in silence. Most of the time, there's a good deal of whispering going on, and people even sending text messages and working on laptop computers.

The atmosphere is electric as General Rondot gives his evidence, differing on some key points from de Villepin's testimony. But the general's tone isn't that of a man settling scores. There's no flourish or vigour in his voice as he contradicts the former prime minister's evidence; all his testimony is given in the same, monotone, matter-of-fact way.

Signs of fatigue, perhaps, creep in towards the end of the day: the general's voice becomes gradually fainter and fainter. The 73-year-old has given evidence in the stand for the best part of eight hours.

Wednesday 30 September

So here it is, the big day that those interested in the Clearstream trial have been waiting for. It's the day when former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is due to give his testimony in court.

The Palais de Justice is more packed than I've seen it since the opening day of the trial. I arrive early, but even then it's difficult to get a spot by the barriers outside the courtroom. Luckily, I manage to squeeze in and therefore physically reserve a place, which I later hand over to our cameraman, Eric. Other people don't manage to get a spot, so there's a lot of pushing and shoving going on with 45 minutes still to go before today's hearing starts.

I've been speaking to one of de Villepin's lawyers, and he told me that his client would, once again, give a short speech to the waiting journalists before entering the courtroom. And he does, right on cue, walking up to a spot directly in front of the middle of the press pack and delivering a brief statement in his confident voice.

Despite the numerous questions called out to him as he finishes, de Villepin doesn't react. There's a real sense that he wants to handle the media on his own terms, giving statements rather answering reporters' questions.

Inside, predictably, the courtroom is packed to bursting. As many as possible members of the public and press have crammed into the small chamber to witness this extraordinary day in court.

De Villepin delivers his testimony in a very self-assured manner, never hesitating or wavering, and his voice never shakes.

After answering the judges' many questions, de Villepin then has to respond to state prosecutors. At this stage, he becomes a little annoyed. He replies "I've already answered that" to several questions and appeals to the judge not to have to repeat the same testimony.

When he faces a grilling from Nicolas Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, the tension really rises. It's a quite match: de Villepin, a lawyer himself, speaking like an experienced and unruffled statesman versus the formidable and fierce-looking Herzog, a rather an un-nerving presence.

At one point, de Villepin's voice rises with indignant anger (although it can't be said he loses his calm), and he launches into a 15-minute long diatribe against Sarkozy.

He repeats his claims that Nicolas Sarkozy brought him to this trial out of bitterness and rivalry, and gets personal, saying Sarkozy harbours a "cold anger" against him. There's no doubt that highlighting the incredible rivalry between the two men is one of the backbones of de Villepin's defence.

Tuesday 29 September

After a rather low-key day at the Clearstream trial on Monday, with an exceptionally early finish (4.30pm), the crews outside the courtroom were gearing up for a much busier day. A buzz of excitement was surrounding Tuesday's scheduled second legal confrontation between Jean-Louis Gergorin and Imad Lahoud. So there were murmurs of disappointment in court when the head judge announced that the day's hearing would start by hearing more from some of the plaintiffs in his case.

However, the plaintiffs spoke briefly (for maximum 15 minutes), so their points were quickly heard. Then, after a brief pause, the focus switched once again onto Imad Lahoud and Jean-Louis Gergorin, two of the defendants at the heart of the case. Again, the two men stood alongside each other in front of the court's bank of microphones, again flatly contradicting one another. Today's cross-examination by the judge was designed to try and establish when the doctored Clearstream listings were sent to a French judge, how, and under whose orders. However, it soon became apparent that the truth would be complex to unravel, with different versions of how various letters and CDs were put together and sent.

Again, the marked difference between the style of the two men's testimony was clear. Imad Lahoud spoke in brief, simple, almost school boy-like sentences; Jean-Louis Gergorin embarked on highly complex, meandering paragraphs, referring to chains of events dating back several years.

On the occasions when the court hearing was suspended for toilet and other breaks, the two defendants Denis Robert and Florian Bourges slipped past the crowds of waiting cameras almost unnoticed. Their testimony was given in the first week, and doesn't centre on the alleged defamation plot, so interest in the two ‘lesser-known' candidates has dropped. Florian Bourges now walks into court smiling, whereas last week he hurried past hiding his face with his coat. At one point I commented to Denis Robert about the change of approach towards him by the press pack, he smiled back at me and said simply "Oui, j'adore" ("yes, i love it").

Monday 28 September

After a four-day break in the hearing, today is all about hearing from some of the plaintiffs in this case. There are 41 parties (many of them individuals) who are plaintiffs, but many feel they've been overshadowed by the political rivalry surrounding the Clearstream trial. Most of the spotlight has been on Sarkozy versus de Villepin, but the list of names added to the Clearstream account listings involves a bewildering array of personalities. Some of them, including top business figures, intelligence experts, journalists and politicians from left and right, are part of the current case. The Clearstream trial on Monday heard from eminent industry figures, such as the ex-head of defence firm Thomson-CSF, Alain Gomez.

A lot of the drama was to be found outside the courtroom itself: lawyers for Dominque de Villepin in the morning lodged their own legal complaint against Nicolas Sarkozy — issuing a writ to the Elysée presidential palace. They're complaining that Sarkozy has endangered de Villepin's right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But it's being seen here in the Palais de Justice as much more of a symbolic move than anything else — since Sarkozy has immunity from prosecution while president, this complaint couldn't be heard until he left office.

Perphaps it's the moment to briefly describe some of the scene outside the chamber where the Clearstream trial is being heard. Every day, around 20 to 30 members of the public turn up at the Palais de Justice, hoping to get a glimpse of Dominique de Villepin. Many of them are ardent fans of the former prime minister, and some queue up for hours, day after day, to lend their support. Unfortunately, due to limited space in the courtroom itself, many of them don't get the chance to sit through the proceedings. When asked why they support de Villepin though, many can't give a detailed answer. It seems to be more about instinct and feeling than anything else. One woman told me that her admiration stemmed from the fact that de Villepin's wife's family, like hers, originated from Martinique in the French Caribbean. Another man presented a large white rose to Dominique de Villepin as he arrived in court this Monday. De Villepin smiled warmly and posed for the press receiving the flower. Afterwards, I asked this man whether he had any history of contact with de Villepin, to which he replied "No, but I like his face".

Wednesday 23 September

Today is set to be a very illuminating day in court. The two men accused of being involved in fabricating the fake Clearstream listings are in the dock, so their testimony could get right to the heart of the case. The two are Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former top executive at the defence firm EADS, and Imad Lahoud, a former trader whom Gergorin recruited as a consultant. The evidence given by the two men directly contradicts each other, so many are expecting a courtroom showdown.

Imad Lahoud and his lawyers arrived first, and again, a flock of journalists rushed down the corridors to try and get a comment from him. But again, Lahoud remained tight-lipped, letting his legal team make a brief statement: "Mr. Lahoud will be giving his answers in court."

I tried a change of tack — addressing Lahoud directly in English. I knew he'd lived and worked for a few years in London. Surprised, he turned around and smiled, and replied that he was feeling calm. I asked him if this was a big day for him, and he replied simply "It's the day".

Jean-Louis Gergorin arrived and again did his best to avoid the waiting press pack. The other defendants also turned up at the court house, but such was the absorption on the two defendants set to give evidence, that even Dominique de Villepin's arrival didn't cause that much of a stir.

First in the dock was Imad Lahoud, answering questions from the head judge. Initially, the focus was on his relationship with Jean-Louis Gergorin. Imad Lahoud claimed that when he first met Gergorin towards the end of 2002 he was feeling vulnerable after his release from prison (he was held for a few months' provisionary detention in connection with hedge fund dealings), and that Gergorin had a lot of influence over him. He claimed that later, as an employer, Gergorin was very "invasive", and would come to Lahoud's family home late in the evening and demand to talk with him in private.

But it was when Imad Lahoud made further revelations that a loud murmur resonated around the courtroom. He claimed he'd added two names referring to Nicolas Sarkozy to the Clearstream account lists, under strict instructions from Gergorin. Lahoud had been quoted in leaked statements as saying this before, but for most of us present, this was the first time we'd heard the admission directly  from the horse's mouth. And the way Imad Lahoud spoke somehow added to the drama: softly, in his slightly-high pitched voice, in very simple sentences and a dead-pan tone. He was also at all times very deferential towards the bench of judges, apologising repeatedly for having changed his version of events.

As expected, Jean-Louis Gergorin vigorously refuted Imad Lahoud's claims. He calmly called Lahoud's testimony "completely false" and "incredible" (rocambolesque). He said he'd been taken in by Lahoud, as had other people, and that it was in fact HE who'd been manipulated. Later, the two men were cross-examined by the judges, the state prosecutors, and various lawyers. Standing side by side, avoiding each others' gaze, both men refuted absolutely the other's testimony.

Into the evening, more surprises emerged. First, Imad Lahoud claimed he'd met Dominiqe de Villepin — he's not on record as saying that before. De Villepin then rose briefly when asked and flatly denied he'd ever met Lahoud.

Later on, one of Dominique de Villepin's lawyers, Olivier Metzner, left the courtroom and told journalists waiting outside that Imad Lahoud had been in regular contact with several people close to Nicolas Sarkozy, implying that the President knew much more about this whole affair than he was letting on. Metzner said he had evidence these meetings took place, before, during and after the time Imad Lahoud claims to have added Sarkozy's name to the Clearstream account listings.

Finally, Dominique de Villepin's lawyers declared outrage at remarks made by President Sarkozy in New York. In a TV interview, Sarkozy said that judges had decided "the guilty parties" should appear in court. ("deux juges indépendants ont estimé que les coupables devaient être traduits devant un tribunal correctionnel"). De Villepin's legal team said they'd take action because their client has the right to be presumed innocent until the trial is over, not pre-destined as guilty by the head of state.

A day which started with all eyes on Imad Lahoud and Jean-Louis Gergorin, finished once again focussed on the rift between Dominique de Villepin and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Tuesday 22 September

What a difference a day makes. After a spectacular opening day at the Clearstream trial, a lot of the buzz inside the Palais de Justice has died down. By 11am, there were no more camera crews waiting outside the courtroom — such a contrast to 24 hours earlier. The second day of the trial was all about establishing how the Clearstream account lists — not at first falsified — got outside the firm, and were circulated around. This stage of the trial wasn't directly about the alleged smear campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy and others, but about theft information and breach of trust.

All of the defendants were obliged to appear in court, even if the day's events didn't directly concern them. So, again, just before 1.30pm, Dominique de Villepin and the others accused arrived at the courthouse. By this stage, some reporters and camera crews had again gathered to cover the arrivals — albeit with slightly less enthusiasm than the day before. This time, de Villepin didn't speak before entering the court.

Thirty-one-year-old Florian Bourges was called first to stand and give evidence. He's the youngest of the defendants in the Clearstrea

m trial; he was just 23 when he worked at Clearstream as part of an internship back in 2001. But Bourges seemed undaunted, calmly answering questions about why he made copies of Clearstream account lists and handed them on to two other people. He was in the dock for several hours, and answered in an unhurried way, often stroking his goatee beard as he spoke. Faced with aggressive questioning from Clearstream's lawyers, he insisted that he might have been naive, even stupid, but didn't believe he'd knowingly broken his confidentiality agreement.

Then, it was the turn of investigative journalist Denis Robert, who obtained copies of the Clearstream lisitings from Florian Bourges. Denis Robert gave a rather rambling testimony, speaking rapidly and veering off on tangents as he explained his investigations into Clearstream and his interest in tracking down money sent to tax havens. He said he'd had good relations with his source, Florian Bourges, and occasionally spoke to Bourges from the dock, using the informal tu form of address. The judge repeatedly had to steer Robert back to the business of directly anwsering his questions. Robert insisted that he shouldn't be prosecuted for obtaining the Clearstream account lists — he said he was merely acting in his role as a journalist. In fact, Robert went so far as to say authorities should thank him for the insights he'd provided in his works on Clearstram, labelling the financial institution as "opaque".

Both Bourges and Robert spoke about their contact with another key defendant in this case, Imad Lahoud. He's the man accused of doctoring the account listings, adding the name of President Nicolas Sarkozy and others. Robert and Bourges both said that when they met Lahoud, he introduced himself as working for a branch of the French intelligence services, the DGSE. Lahoud is set to testify on Wednesday, and there's already a lot of excitement in the press corps about what his evidence could reveal.

Monday 21 September

So that's it — the Clearstream trial has begun, and what an opening day!

Even though the trial didn't get underway until 1.30pm, scores of journalists and lawyers were milling around the Palais de Justice in Paris from the morning. The atmosphere was electric, especially outside the courtroom where the case was to be heard. Metal barriers had been erected around the room's entrance and around a dozen police officers were guarding the area. If they hadn't been, I'm sure the eager press pack would have swarmed forward. Outside the building itself an entire street had already been occupied with wall-to-wall satelite vans, ready for journalists to rush out and file live reports or send fresh pictures quickly back to the newsroom.

Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for: the high-profile defendants in the Clearstream case started to arrive. Someone shouted that Imad Lahoud, the computer expert at the heart of the case, had arrived at the courthouse. There was no need to ask where — we just followed the mad dash of journalists along one corridor. Within a minute, Lahoud and his lawyers were engulfed by cameras and microphones. Lahoud didn't speak, leaving his legal team to make a few brief comments. They slowly pressed forward against the mass of journalists, one of Lahoud's lawyers put his arm around his client to provide physical support against the crowd.

Then, another sprint down the corridor; Jean-Louis Gergorin, a top executive at defence firm EADS and also at the centre of the trial, was in the building. He and his team were so overwhelmed by reporters that they briefly took refuge in a side corridor while waiting for police officers to come and help them on their way into court. At the end of the day, leaving the court room, a police barricade formed to shelter Gergorin from the waiting press.

Next, a smiling and relaxed-looking Denis Robert arrived at court. He's the journalist accused of illegally obtaining Clearstream account listings, but he told the press he didn't think he should be appearing in court just for doing his job.

Then, with just a few minutes to go before the trial started, former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin, swept into the building. He and his entourage passed quickly behind the metal security barriers, probably a good move on his part, given all the cameras straining to get the closest possible shot. De Villepin gave a short but determined speech in a confident voice, then turned and entered the courtroom.

Inside, the small chamber was packed to bursting. Several people were standing at the back of the room. It was a hot, muggy day in the French capital, and the temperature in the court was very high. Several lawyers, wearing heavy black robes, were sweating copiously.  The defendants sat facing the judges, with their backs to the rest of the court, so it was impossible to see their faces. Dominique de Villepin sat very still in his seat for most of the afternoon, looking directly ahead, seemingly listening attentively to the detailed legal arguments. Interestingly, de Villepin was sitting directly next to Imad Lahoud, the man who has claimed that he added President Nicolas Sarkozy's name to the fake Clearstream lists "with the knowledge of Mr. de Villepin". The former prime minister has vehemently denied that very damaging claim. I didn't witness de Villepin and Lahoud exchanging any words during the first day of the trial.

After a brief pause, the court then got on with the business of the day. That involved first of all formally reading out the names of all participants; the defendants then had to stand and confirm their identities. A lengthy argument ensued about whether Nicolas Sarkozy is eligible to be a plaintiff in this case, since he is France's president and holds a unique legal poistion. In the end, the judge ruled that a decision on this argument would be made at the end of the proceedings, along with a verdict on the case itself.

Date created : 2009-09-30