French ex-premier Villepin's appeal trial begins
French former prime minister Dominique de Villepin's appeal trial on charges of smearing his fierce political rival President Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2007 election began on Monday.
Villepin, a suave diplomat best remembered for leading the charge against the Iraq war at the United Nations in 2003, was cleared of all charges in a first trial that ended last year.
Two co-accused -- former deputy boss of aerospace giant EADS Jean-Louis Gergorin and former EADS employee and mathematician Imad Lahoud -- were jailed for 15 and 18 months respectively and fined 40,000 euros (60,000 dollars).
Villepin made no comment on the trial as he arrived at court wearing a dark blue suit, saying only that he was thinking of the victims of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed in an overnight raid by US forces in Pakistan.
The three defendants stated their names and monthly incomes -- 20,000 euros for Villepin -- before taking their seats for a hearing under presiding judge Christiane Beauquis. Villepin was not questioned further in Monday's hearing.
The complex case dates back to 2004 and centres on a list -- later proved to be false -- of account holders at the Clearstream bank in Luxembourg who had allegedly received kickbacks from the sale of French frigates to Taiwan.
One name on the bogus list was Sarkozy, the ambitious finance and interior minister under president Jacques Chirac. Chirac had for years groomed Villepin as his heir to the Elysee.
Lahoud and Gergorin squabbled over the false list. Lahoud has admitted adding names to it, including Sarkozy's, but he told the court Monday it was Gergorin's idea and also implicated Villepin.
Gergorin countered that he considered himself led astray by Lahoud.
Sarkozy served alongside Villepin under Chirac, but the pair fell out spectacularly over who should succeed him.
The prosecutor at the first trial called for Villepin to be sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined 45,000 euros. He was cleared in January 2010, but the prosecutor decided to appeal.
Sarkozy, who was a civil plaintiff in the first trial, is not involved in the appeal.
One of de Villepin's lawyers, Olivier Metzner, said ahead of the appeal that: "We're going from an almost theatrical trial to a more technical trial."
Villepin said in February that he would not renew his membership of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, having launched his own United Republic party in June to offer an alternative to what he called Sarkozy's "divisive" policies.
Opinion polls show that Villepin could get four to five percent of votes in next year's presidential election, potentially enough to split the vote on the right and derail Sarkozy's chances of getting through to the second round.
"I'm not afraid of anything and one isn't afraid of anything when one is innocent," Villepin said on Sunday.
Lahoud said before the start of the trial that his wife had written to the court to say that Villepin did in fact know her husband, something the former premier has denied. The judge said Monday he had not received the letter.
The trial is set to end on May 26.
© 2011 AFP