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Elite at heart of Angolagate

Members of France’s political and business elite went on trial this week charged with involvement in the illegal multimillion-dollar sale of weapons to Angola during some of the bloodiest years of the nation’s devastating civil war.

The eldest son of late president Francois Mitterrand, an Israeli-Russian billionaire trying to become Jerusalem’s mayor, a former interior minister and a novelist who specialises in crime thrillers are among 42 people implicated in the trafficking of weapons worth $791-million to a country which at the time was subject to an international arms embargo.

According to a 486-page indictment prepared by prosecutors over seven years, the sale was organised by two central suspects who proceeded to draw in dozens of other people whose influence could be used to facilitate the deals and who in return, it is alleged, received kickbacks, bonuses or bribes. Investigators have examined claims that French officials set up a network of parallel diplomacy to try to gain access to Angola’s vast oil reserves.

Pierre Falcone, a French businessman who serves as Angola’s representative to Unesco, and Arkady Gaydamak, an Israeli-Russian whose son owns Portsmouth football club, are at the heart of the affair dubbed Angolagate by the French media.

They stand accused of orchestrating the sale from 1993 to 1998 of tanks, landmines and other former armaments from the former USSR to President José Eduardo dos Santos, who was then fighting an increasingly effective military campaign by United States-backed Unita rebels. Both men face charges of illegal weapons sales, influence trafficking, tax evasion, corrupt practices and misuse of company funds. They deny any wrongdoing.

Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, who acted during his father’s presidency as the Elysee’s Africa adviser for six years until 1992, is charged with complicity in illegal trade and embezzlement, and accepting bribes worth £1,5-million. Investigators allege he was the point of contact between Dos Santos and the businessmen, accusations he has denied.

Also on trial are Charles Pasqua (81), a former right-wing interior minister, and his close colleague, Jean-Charles Marchiani, who are accused of influence-peddling on behalf of the Angolan authorities. They also deny the charges, with Pasqua dismissing them as an elaborate political conspiracy designed to discredit him.

Most of the other defendants are alleged to have received “misused” funds from Brenco International, a Paris-based company run by Falcone, in the businessmen’s alleged attempts to smooth over potential sticking points in the deals. The accused range from political heavyweights such as Jacques Attali, an adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, to cultural figures such as writer Paul-Loup Sulitzer and Chinese opera singer Alexandre Jia. Their gifts, investigators claim, came in the form of suitcases of cash, property on the Riviera, armoured cars and trips to Las Vegas. All deny any wrongdoing.

The trial, expected to last five months, has been the subject of intense scrutiny since prosecutors called the 42 defendants to court in April last year. With its political sensitivities, there are many in Paris and Luanda who would rather it did not take place. On Monday the opening was dominated by a plea by a lawyer for Angola to halt the proceedings “to protect the rights” of his country. Francis Teitgen argued that documents used by the prosecution contained defence secrets that should not be made public.

No Angolans are among those charged but prosecutors claim dozens of officials in the country, including Dos Santos — still in power after 29 years — received tens of millions of dollars of kickbacks. French officials are concerned that the trial, which is expected to lay bare a network of corruption and parallel diplomacy, could destabilise a mutually beneficial relationship.

Next year Angola, the continent’s biggest oil producer, will hold a new oil licensing round in which France’s Total will hope to make gains. Partly to assuage fears that the trial will reflect badly on dealings between the countries, Sarkozy visited Angola in May, promising to turn the page on a troubled history. —

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