Dirt and Diamonds in Elf Trial

April 2, 2003

Thirty-seven defendants will be asked to explain dirty dealings within France's political and business elite involving the embezzlement of some $US200 million and former French oil giant Elf at a trial that opened on Monday. The fruit of an eight-year investigation, the trial will expose the use of cash sweeteners to secure contracts for the then state-owned Elf in oil-rich countries, and how some of that cash slipped into the pockets of certain executives.

The trial will also rake up well-known sleaze like the kickbacks from an illegal arms deal secured via a now infamous liaison between then Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and a woman who dubbed herself "The Whore of the Republic". The trial will be overshadowed abroad by the likely start of a US-led war on Iraq, but keenly watched in France where the affair has stirred up charges of endemic corruption a decade ago during the last years of the late President Francois Mitterrand.

Elf is now part of French oil major TotalFinaElf, which is negotiating multi-billion dollar deals with Iraq. It was France's biggest company and controlled by the state at the time of the alleged siphoning off of huge sums of cash into offshore bank accounts between 1989 and 1993. With the prosecution documents running to 44,000 pages - peppered with evidence of luxury villas and jewellery - the trial is due to run for around four months, following the longest investigation in French judicial history.

It has ramifications as far away as Venezuela, Uzbekistan, Angola, Gabon, Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville, as well as Spain and Germany, where judges believe Elf paid bribes linked to its 1992 purchase of the eastern German Leuna refinery complex. The prosecution alleges politicians in Elf's African strongholds were given cash for every barrel of oil extracted.

Anti-corruption magistrate Renaud van Ruymbeke has also investigated charges Elf paid tens of millions of dollars of bribes to win a contract in Nigeria in 1995.

High drama

One of the key defendants, ex-Elf head Loik Le Floch-Prigent, 59, already serving time in prison for earlier Elf-related charges, failed to appear in court on Monday, citing a skin disease his lawyers say has worsened in jail. He faces corruption charges carrying a prison sentence of up to 10 years, along with his former deputy Alfred Sirven, 76, and Andre Tarallo, 74, the expert for Africa, where Elf played a major business and political role.

Le Floch-Prigent, Sirven and Christine Deviers-Joncours, a lingerie model turned Elf lobbyist, were given jail terms ranging from 18 months to three years in January on corruption charges linked to lavish gifts that Deviers-Joncours showered on Dumas to secure an illegal sale of frigates to Taiwan. Dumas, 80, wept openly as an appeals court overturned his conviction for his part in that scandal, where the total fraud was estimated at nine million euros, on the grounds he was not aware the gifts from his mistress were funded by Elf.

The latest trial promises more high drama to add to past courtroom showdowns between Dumas and Deviers-Joncours and the Hollywood-style capture of Sirven at his Philippines hideaway in 2001 following his four years on the run. On being seized, Sirven removed the chip from inside his mobile phone and swallowed it, to prevent investigators tracking down the last few people he called as police narrowed in on him.

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