Disgraced ex-police officer’s corruption trial opens in France
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The trial of Michel Neyret, once one of France’s most respected law enforcement officers, opened in Paris on Monday, where he stands accused of a litany of crimes, including corruption, drug trafficking and embezzlement.
Neyret’s fall from grace has been a spectacular one. Known for his charisma, Neyret headed up an anti-gang unit in the southeastern city of Lyon for 20 years, a job that earned him France’s highest honour, the Légion d’honneur, in 2004 from then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
He quickly rose up the ranks over the next three years and was promoted to deputy chief of police in Lyon in 2007.
Neyret’s career, however, came to a crashing halt with his arrest on September 29, 2011, after an investigation into a major drug trafficking ring led straight to his office.
He now faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty on charges of corruption, influence peddling, conspiracy, breach of professional secrecy, holding stolen property, drug trafficking, embezzlement and money laundering.
An informer’s informant?
Neyret’s involvement in the case came to light in a string of wiretapped phone conversations with Gilles Benichou, a known convict who briefly worked as a confidential informant.
Although the police had severed ties with Benichou for being too unreliable, the recordings revealed that he and Neyret met at least two to three times a week, and spoke on an almost daily basis.
During these conversations, Benichou often solicited Neyret for information on judicial proceedings or investigations into his inner-circle and family, including his cousin Stéphane Alzraa, a notorious carbon tax scammer.
In exchange, he showered the deputy chief of police and his wife, Nicole, with lavish gifts, including several trips to Morocco and a room at the luxurious Carlton hotel in Cannes. Benichou also gave Neyret around €40,000 in cash, as well as a €6,000 watch from famed Swiss watchmaker Chopard, and a €30,000 watch from Cartier for his wife, among other items.
But Nicole Neyret soon began to complain about her husband’s increasingly extravagant behaviour.
“He’s not the same since you started giving him money. Because [he] goes out, [he] spends... He spends everything on champagne, on nights out,” she was recorded saying in a phone conversation with Benichou.
“Don’t give him any more money, otherwise he’ll go to the casino. He’ll drink and pay for girls to drink too. You’ve ruined Michel for me… He’s now more of a gangster than the others. But stop, stop, he’s obsessed with money, money, money,” she pleaded.
Far from stopping, Neyret opened a Swiss bank account in his wife’s name just weeks before his arrest. Prosecutors believe that the account was intended to be used to deposit millions of euros from a carbon tax scam involving Alzraa.
“I’m telling you, you’ll want for nothing, you’re going to have a beautiful future,” Benichou was recorded telling Neyret in one wiretapped conversation.
‘An excellent cop’
Despite the case against him, Neyret has defended his actions, maintaining that he was only doing his job as an officer of the law.
Former national chief of police Christian Lothion also spoke out in support of Neyret shortly before the start of his trial.
“He was an excellent cop, if not an exceptional one,” Lothion told France’s Europe 1 radio on Monday morning. “He had a reputation for being an excellent and honest police officer, and I don’t think this reputation was undeserved in the least.”
The move came somewhat as a surprise, since Lothion, who served as Neyret’s direct superior from 2001 to 2004, initially responded to his arrest five years ago by stating, “He is no longer my friend, nor a police officer.”
“At the time, I was chief of police and Neyret was not only one of my colleagues, but also one of my friends. The shock was all the greater for me and I perceived it as a betrayal,” Lothion told Europe 1.
Neyret appeared in court on Monday alongside seven other defendants in the case, including his wife Nicole. Eighth suspect Stéphane Alzraa has been on the run ever since his escape from France’s Corbas prison in November 2015.
The trial is expected to run until May 24.