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Court acquits former French PM in smear trial

 Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin speaks after the verdict of the slander trial at the Paris courthouse Thursday Jan. 28, 2010, in Paris.  ...


Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin speaks after the verdict of the slander trial at the Paris courthouse Thursday Jan. 28, 2010, in Paris. ...

A court ruled Thursday that former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin did not take part in a smear campaign against President Nicolas Sarkozy, a verdict that means the two rivals may soon be sparring in the political arena again.
Villepin, a former diplomat known for his 2003 U.N. speech urging the U.S. not to invade Iraq, quickly suggested his acquittal means he is setting his sights on the presidency.
The 6-year court case backfired on Sarkozy who had been one of 40 plaintiffs. At one point, in a slip, Sarkozy had referred to the defendants in the case as "guilty."
On Thursday, the court accorded Sarkozy one euro ($1.40) in symbolic damages. But other defendants were convicted in the case, which involved a phony list of leading French politicians and businessmen who allegedly held secret accounts purportedly created to hold bribes from a 1991 sale of warships to Taiwan, and other shady income.
Following the verdict, Villepin, who served as French prime minister from 2005 to 2007 under President Jacques Chirac, said: "My innocence is recognized." In a hint that he is eyeing the 2012 presidential election, he said: "I want to turn toward the future, to serve the French, and in a spirit of unity, to contribute to France's recovery."
The complex case grabbed headlines in France as Villepin served as prime minister and left the country with questions about what goes on in the upper echelons of politics.
The so-called Clearstream case is named after a Luxembourg clearing house where a mysterious list of alleged clients surfaced, including Sarkozy and other leading political and business figures. The origin of the list, eventually deemed fake, and why it was created, became the center of the case, which delved into old international arms deals, offshore bank accounts and the French aviation and defense industries.
Sarkozy has said he believed the alleged smear campaign, known as the Clearstream case, was intended to upend his 2007 presidential bid and he filed suit, saying he believed Villepin was "the primary instigator." The court ruled that it saw no proof that Villepin ordered a smear campaign or knowingly failed to stop one.
Villepin had been charged with complicity in slander and forgery, and the prosecution had recommended an 18-month suspended sentence and a fine of (EURO)45,000 ($67,000).
On Thursday, Sarkozy "duly noted" the not-guilty verdict and said in a statement that he would not appeal _ which he cannot do in any event except for damages. However, he also noted "the severity of certain findings" in the case.
For Sarkozy's lawyer, Thierry Herzog, the guilty got away.
"Yes, there was a plot and two people were convicted," Herzog said. But "the commander or commanders (of the scheme) were not."
One lawmaker in the governing UMP party echoed others by cheering the verdict.
"Imagine what a blow it would have been to our institutions if it had been shown that, at the highest level of state, officials had plotted for sordid political ends?" said Lionnel Luca.
The case dates to 2004, when both Villepin and Sarkozy were ministers under President Chirac, and both were considered serious contenders for the presidency.
Villepin accused Sarkozy of using the trial as a political weapon and cast himself as a victim of "abuse of power."
The list claimed to show clients who held secret accounts with Luxembourg clearing house Clearstream, purportedly created to hold bribes from a 1991 sale of warships to Taiwan, and other shady income.
Villepin was given the list and he asked a retired general to investigate it. Though it turned out to be a hoax, it was by then already circulating in political and legal circles. The indictment said Villepin should have alerted judicial authorities to the scam earlier.
Another high-profile defendant, Jean-Louis Gergorin, former vice president at Airbus' parent company EADS, was sentenced to three years in jail, with 21 months of that suspended, and fined (EURO)40,000 ($56,000) for slander and other illegal acts. He said he would appeal.
Imad Lahoud, alleged to be the one who falsified the list, was sentenced to three years in prison, with 18 months suspended, and fined (EURO)40,000 euros for his role in the falsification and other charges. Lahoud's lawyer said he and his client would decide whether to appeal.
The other defendants were an accountant accused of stealing Clearstream documents used to make the faked list, Florian Bourges, and Denis Robert, an investigative journalist accused of giving the Clearstream documents to Lahoud. Bourges was given a four-month suspended sentence for abuse of confidence. Robert was acquitted.
Villepin is not the first former prime minister of France to go before a court, though the affairs ended less happily for one of them.
In 2004, Alain Juppe was convicted in a corruption case.
In 1999, Laurent Fabius was acquitted of manslaughter in a case of people given blood transfusions tainted with the HIV virus.
Both men once were considered potential presidential candidates.

Updated : 2021-05-18 02:46 GMT+08:00