French trial opens for ex-PM Balladur over 'Karachi' kickbacks

Paris (AFP) –


Former French prime minister Edouard Balladur appeared in court Tuesday on charges he used kickbacks from 1990s arms deals to help finance a presidential bid, in a case that has already seen six people sentenced to prison terms.

Balladur, 91, made no statement to a throng of journalists at the Court of Justice of the Republic, which hears cases involving ministerial misconduct.

The conservative ex-premier joins a long list of senior French politicians pursued for alleged financial wrongdoing, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

Also on trial is Balladur's former defence minister Francois Leotard, 78.

The two men were charged in 2017 with "complicity in the misuse of corporate assets" over the sale of submarines to Pakistan and frigates to Saudi Arabia between 1993 and 1995.

Investigators discovered an estimated 13 million francs in kickbacks from the deals, now worth some 2.8 million euros ($3.3 million), after accounting for inflation.

A large chunk of the money is suspected to have been funnelled to Balladur's 1995 presidential bid, while he was serving as prime minister in the final years of Francois Mitterrand's presidency, in a case known as the "Karachi affair".

In particular, the inquiry found a cash injection of 10.25 million francs -- mostly in 500-franc bills -- just as Balladur's team was scrambling after his defeat in the first round of voting.

- Questionable cash -

Balladur, who also has to answer to a charge that he concealed the crimes, has denied any wrongdoing, saying the 10 million francs came from the sale of T-shirts and other items at campaign rallies.

The claims came to light during an investigation into a 2002 bombing in Karachi, Pakistan, which targeted a bus transporting French engineers.

Fifteen people were killed, including 11 engineers working on the submarine contract, and the Al-Qaeda terror network was initially suspected of the attack.

But the focus later shifted to the submarines deal as investigators considered whether the bombing may have been revenge for Chirac's decision to halt commission payments for the arms deals shortly after he beat Balladur in the presidential vote.

Leotard is accused of having created an "opaque network" of intermediaries for the contracts signed with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The ex-premier also stands charged with instructing the budget ministry -- led at the time by Sarkozy -- to approve state guarantees for "deficient or underfunded" contracts, because of the alleged kickbacks.

Investigators say that cash deposits in Balladur's campaign fund coincided with trips to Switzerland by Ziad Takieddine, a Lebanese-French intermediary who has long been active in French right-wing circles.

- Six already sentenced -

Takieddine fled to Lebanon last June after a Paris court sentenced him and another middleman, Abdul Rahman El-Assir, to five years in prison over their role in the Karachi kickbacks.

Balladur's former campaign manager Nicolas Bazire was given a three-year sentence by the same court, as was Leotard's adviser Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres.

Thierry Gaubert, an adviser to Sarkozy at the finance ministry, and a former executive at state-owned naval contractor DCN (since renamed Naval Group) received two-year sentences. All have appealed the rulings.

Takieddine told judges in 2013 that he participated in the secret financing of Balladur's campaign after being asked by Bazire and Gaubert, though he retracted the claim six years later.