French court wraps up Villepin smear trial

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Judges wrapped up an appeals trial Thursday in the Clearstream affair, a political scandal in which France's ex-prime minister Dominique de Villepin is accused of smearing President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The court said it would give its verdict on September 14 after the final hearing closed in the complex trial, which centres on a fake list of names that falsely implicated Sarkozy in kickbacks on arms deals with Taiwan.

Sarkozy had accused his bitter political rival Villepin of causing his name to be on the list.

The month-long appeals trial focused on a web of murky claims and counter-claims about who in European aerospace firm EADS, owner of Airbus, was responsible for the fake list, and whether Villepin could have prevented it.

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.

Public prosecutors appealed but Sarkozy did not take part in the appeal.

Villepin's lawyer Olivier D'Antin demanded the appeal judges deliver "a frank and unequivocal acquittal."

Two co-accused -- former deputy boss of 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).

Lahoud's lawyer Olivier Pardo told Thursday's hearing that his client had admitted adding Sarkozy's name to the list but was not "the ring leader, the organiser of the set-up," insisting his then-superior Gergorin was responsible.

Prosecutor Jean-Louis Perol said during the appeal trial that Villepin was guilty of "complicity by abstention" for failing to stop the false claims.

Perol said there was a "convergence of interests" between Villepin and Gergorin, the "instigator" of the false accusations.

Villepin's lawyers retorted that a person cannot be convicted for "not doing" something.

Prosecutors asked for a 15-month suspended jail term for Villepin.

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.

Sarkozy was at the time finance and interior minister under president Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy served alongside Villepin under Chirac, but the pair fell out over who should succeed him.

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 ahead of the trial.

© 2011 AFP

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