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Paris court sentences men who impersonated French minister in money-raising scam

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian leaves the Élysée Palace following the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, France on October 21, 2019.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian leaves the Élysée Palace following the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, France on October 21, 2019. © Benoit Tessier, Reuters, File Photo

A Paris court sentenced two men to seven-and 11-year jail terms Wednesday for their role in a bizarre money-raising scam that involved using a mask to impersonate French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

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Gilbert Chikli, 54, received the heavier sentence plus a fine of €2 million euros ($2.26 million), while Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, was fined €1 million on top of his jail term.

The Franco-Israeli pair were on trial for organised fraud and usurping a person's identity to extort more than €50 million from wealthy political, business and religious figures.

The trial began on Tuesday, February 4, when the men were accused of using Skype and a silicone mask to extract tens of millions of euros from the rich and famous by impersonating Le Drian.

Victims of the fake Le Drian – now foreign minister but then in charge of defence – included billionaire spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, who parted with €20 million ($22 million).

Starting in 2015, the "minister" made calls by telephone and video link to more than 150 targets – of whom three were successfully duped – often to seek funds for a "secret operation" with a promise of repayment by the French state.

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

"I hope that justice will take its course and ensure that these crooks are punished as they should be," the real Le Drian told French media on the weekend before the trial, adding he was "appalled" and "offended" by the alleged abuse of his name.

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 the CEOs of different businesses.

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.

'I have a gift'

Others targeted, albeit unsuccessfully, included Gabon's President Ali Bongo, French AIDS charity Sidaction, the CEO of the Lafarge cement company and the archbishop of Paris.

The phony Le Drian even tried to convince the Tunisian government to buy four Airbus Tigre attack helicopters for €19 million ($21 million).

Before the trial, Chikli and Lasarevitsch had denied the charges. But in an interview with French television in 2010 over previous scams, Chikli said he was intrigued by the "game" of scamming.

"You've either got the gift or you haven't, it's like famous actors. When it comes to me, you can say that I have a gift," he said.

His story inspired a 2015 film, "Je Compte Sur Vous" (I'm Counting on You), with French actor Vincent Elbaz in the starring role.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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