Sarkozy slander trial ends after clash of titans

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France's trial of the decade ended Friday after a month of dramatic clashes between lawyers for Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Dominique de Villepin, accused of plotting to bar his road to power.

Paris - France's trial of the decade ended Friday after a month of dramatic clashes between lawyers for Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Dominique de Villepin, accused of plotting to bar his road to power.

Judges will hand down a verdict on 28 January in the politically-explosive case, in which Villepin claims to be the victim of a personal vendetta by the French president.

One of five defendants in the case, the 55-year-old diplomat is charged with conspiring in 2004 to discredit Sarkozy using falsified bank lists at a time when the pair were jostling to succeed president Jacques Chirac.

Villepin has been one of Sarkozy's most outspoken opponents in the past two years, and he accused the president of hanging him "from a butcher's hook" as prosecutors called for an 18-month suspended sentence against him this week.

But the French diplomat, best known for leading the charge against the 2003 US invasion of Iraq at the United Nations, struck a conciliatory tone as he left the courtroom in Paris Friday.

"I want to the turn the page and look towards the future," he told reporters. "I want to reach out to Nicolas Sarkozy. I am not bitter, and I want to serve the French people at my rightful place."

Prosecutors argue that while Villepin did not deliberately take part in the plot to defame Sarkozy, he was an "accomplice through silence".

They also sought a EUR 45,000 (USD 70,000-dollar) fine against him for complicity to slander, complicity to use forgeries, dealing in stolen property and breach of trust.

But they did not ask judges to bar Villepin from holding public office, leaving open a chance for him to make a political comeback.

The judicial drama opened a month ago in the courtroom where Marie Antoinette was sentenced to the guillotine in 1793.

The complex case centres on a fake list of account holders from the Clearstream financial clearing house who were said to have received kickbacks from the sale of French warships to Taiwan.

Sarkozy's name was on the list and the French leader alleges the scandal was fabricated to tarnish him during ahead of his party's nomination for the 2007 presidential vote, which he won.

Sarkozy is one of 39 civil plaintiffs in a case that has also exposed the murky ties between France's political elite and the secret services.

A three-year jail sentence, with all but 18 months suspended, was requested for co-defendant Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former aerospace executive who leaked the bogus list to investigators.

Prosecutors called for a two-year sentence with six months suspended for Imad Lahoud, the mathematician who admitted to adding Sarkozy's name to the fake list.

They asked for the acquittal of journalist Denis Robert and a four-month suspended sentence for accountant Florian Bourges, who played a minor role.

Three weeks of testimony yielded mostly contradictory versions of the events and judges will probably be forced to pore over the 40 volumes of written evidence to reach a verdict, expected some time in January.

The most potentially damaging testimony to Villepin came from General Philippe Rondot, an intelligence agent famous for having tracking down Carlos the Jackal in Sudan.

Rondot took notes from a January 2004 meeting at which Villepin allegedly asked him to investigate the list and zero in on Sarkozy, suggesting the former prime minister was interested in using the information against his rival.

Villepin has denied raising Sarkozy's name at the meeting, but Rondot has stuck to his version.

In a final twist on Friday, Gergorin's lawyer accused Villepin of lying to protect his boss, Chirac, and of hiding the fact he was following instructions from the president, a one-time mentor turned bitter rival of Sarkozy.

Carole Landry/AFP/Expatica

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