Spain's Princess Cristina, husband on trial in landmark corruption case

11th January 2016, Comments 0 comments

Spain's Princess Cristina went on trial Monday on tax evasion charges in a landmark corruption case centred on her husband's business dealings, becoming the first Spanish royal in modern times to face prosecution.

Her legal team -- led by Miquel Roca, a former politician who helped write Spain's 1978 constitution -- marshalled a battery of arguments to get the case against the 50-year-old mother-of-four dropped during a first trial session lasting nearly 13 hours.

Cristina, King Felipe VI's sister, and her husband, former Olympic handball medallist Inaki Urdangarin, are among 18 suspects being tried at a makeshift courtroom on the island of Mallorca, in a case that has outraged Spain and sullied the monarchy's reputation.

The royal couple arrived together at the courthouse to the flash of dozens of cameras but following courtroom rules they had to sit apart during opening arguments in the case, which alleges that Urdangarin embezzled public funds through a foundation he once chaired.

Cristina has been charged with tax evasion while her husband is accused of the more serious crimes of embezzlement, influence peddling, document falsification, money laundering, forgery, breach of official duty and tax fraud.

Public prosecutors have always refused to press charges against her, but under Spanish law private entities can also file criminal complaints, and that is just what anti-graft campaigners "Manos Limpias" -- or "Clean Hands" -- did.

Cristina's lawyers cited Spanish jurisprudence which allows the accused to escape trial if the victim of a crime does not back the charges -- and in this case the alleged victim is the state.

But Virginia Lopez Negrete, the lawyer representing "Manos Limpias", argued that dropping the case against Cristina would harm Spain's justice system.

"All citizens are equal before the law and as a result anachronistic doctrines cannot be applied" that would "privilege" the princess, she said.

The trial will resume on February 9 when the defendants will start to testify.

The three-judge panel will decide by that date if it agrees with the request to throw out the case against the princess.

- 'Justice is not equal' -

Over 500 journalists from around the world have flocked to cover the high-security trial, which was moved from a courthouse to a public administration school on the outskirts of Mallorca's capital Palma to accommodate all the reporters and lawyers.

It comes as Spain seethes over repeated corruption scandals that have exposed politicians, trade unions, bankers and footballers, eroding Spaniards' faith in their institutions and elites.

"We have never had as much corruption in Spain's democratic history," said 45-year-old unemployed masseur Francisco Solana, one of a handful of protesters who gathered outside the courtroom.

The case is centred on business dealings by the Noos Institute, a charitable organisation based in Palma which Urdangarin founded and chaired from 2004 to 2006.

The 47-year-old and his former business partner Diego Torres are suspected of embezzling 6.2 million euros ($6.7 million) in public funds paid by two regional governments to the organisation to stage sporting and other events.

Urdangarin is accused of using his royal connections to secure inflated contracts without competing bids and siphoning off some of the money into Aizoon, a firm he jointly ran with Cristina, to fund a lavish lifestyle.

The couple are suspected of using Aizoon for personal expenses including work on their mansion in Barcelona, dance lessons and even Harry Potter books, which reduced the firm's taxable profits, according to court filings.

If convicted, Cristina -- who has denied knowledge of her husband's activities -- faces a jail term of up to eight years. Urdangarin faces more than 19 years in prison.

- Did the palace 'cooperate'? -

The corruption scandal, as well as health woes, prompted Cristina's father Juan Carlos to abdicate in 2014 in favour of his son Felipe to try to revive the scandal-hit monarchy.

King Felipe VI swiftly ordered palace accounts to be subject to an external audit and promised an honest and transparent monarchy.

Torres, Urdangarin's former business partner, has insisted that Juan Carlos and his advisers knew and approved of his son-in-law's business dealings and says he has hundreds of emails that can prove it.

"The royal palace was informed, supervised, and at times even cooperated," he said in an interview broadcast on private television La Sexta on Sunday.

In Monday's hearing, his lawyer once again asked that Juan Carlos and Felipe be summoned to testify, a request that has been denied in the past.

The trial is expected to last six months.


© 2016 AFP

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