Long sentences demanded in French minister impersonation trial

2 min

Paris (AFP)

Prosecutors on Wednesday called for sentences of 10 and 14 years for two alleged fraudsters accused of impersonating French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in a bizarre scam that saw one even wear a mask in video conferences.

The two main suspects -- Franco-Israelis Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35 -- are charged with organised fraud and usurping a person's identity in an outrageous scheme that allegedly allowed them to extort more than 50 million euros ($55 million) from wealthy political, business, and even religious figures.

Prosecutor Alice Cherif called for a 14-year sentence for Chikli and 10 years for his co-accused.

She also asked the court in Paris that each man be fined two million euros.

The pair are accused of masterminding the scam. Five others face lesser complicity charges.

"It's like a robbery, a heist, except that it is done on the phone. In the end it is the same result as a heist except that the weapon is the voice," Cherif told the court.

The scheme -- which took place from 2015-2016 when Le Drian was defence minister -- involved fraudsters who pretended to be him asking politicians and executives for urgent financial aid for secret operations by the French state.

One would even appear in video conferences behind a fake official desk, donning a silicone mask of Le Drian and wearing a suit, no doubt hoping the grainy transmission quality would dispel any suspicion.

The fake "minister" made calls by telephone and video link to more than 150 targets -- of whom three were successfully duped.

The money was often said to be for ransom payments for hostages or anti-terror operations.

Both men have strenuously protested their innocence.

But the prosecution told the court that evidence "abounds" in the case, including messages left on Ukrainian phones and conversations held in prison as well as statements taken from other defendants.

In 2015, a French court convicted Chikli in absentia to seven years in prison for similar scams in 2005 and 2006, in which he posed as business chief executives.

On the run, he was arrested two years later with Lasarevitsch in Ukraine. On their phones, police found pictures of a silicone mask of Prince Albert II of Monaco, suggesting another hoax was in the planning stages.

Le Drian, a senior ally of President Emmanuel Macron, became foreign minister in 2017 after serving five years as defence minister.