Sarkozy seeks closure of Libyan corruption case as witness drops claim

Ex-French leader Nicolas Sarkozy leaves after attending a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Sarkozy wants the Libya probe against him to be dropped. (AFP)
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Updated 13 November 2020

Sarkozy seeks closure of Libyan corruption case as witness drops claim

PARIS: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants authorities to drop an investigation into alleged illegal financing of his 2007 campaign by the regime of late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, after a central accuser backtracked on claims that he had handed Sarkozy’s team suitcases of Libyan cash.
Sarkozy, who denies wrongdoing, has facecd preliminary corruption charges in the case, under investigation since 2013.
The probe gained traction when French-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine told news site Mediapart in 2016 that he had delivered suitcases from Libya containing €5 million ($6.2 million) in cash to Sarkozy and his former chief of staff.
The ex-president jumped on the first reports from BFM TV and Paris Match saying: “The truth is out at last.”
On Wednesday, Takieddine reversed course, telling BFM television from Lebanon: “It’s not true. Mr. Sarkozy did not receive financing ... there was no financing of Sarkozy’s presidential campaign.”
Sarkozy released a statement late Wednesday on social networks saying: “The truth is emerging at last ... he never gave me money, there was never illegal financing of my 2007 campaign.”
Sarkozy said he would ask investigators to drop the charges against him, and sue Takieddine for defamation.
“For seven-and-a-half years, the investigation has not discovered the slightest proof of any illegal financing whatsoever,” he posted on Facebook.
“The chief accuser recognizes his lies,” Sarkozy added. “He never gave me money, there was never illegal financing of my campaign in 2007.”
Investigators are examining claims that Qaddafi’s regime secretly gave Sarkozy €50 million overall for his winning 2007 French campaign. The sum would be more than double the legal campaign funding limit at the time, €21 million, and would violate French rules against foreign campaign financing.
Sarkozy’s relationship with Qaddafi was complicated. In 2007, Sarkozy welcomed Qaddafi to France with high honors. Sarkozy then put France at the forefront of NATO-led airstrikes that helped rebel fighters topple Qaddafi’s regime in 2011.
Sarkozy and Takieddine have faced other legal troubles in France. The former president faces trial later this month in an unrelated corruption case.
Takieddine, who is in Beirut on the run from French justice in another shady financing affair, put out a video saying the instructing magistrate had twisted his words.
“I am saying loud and clear the magistrate ... really wanted to turn it the way he wanted and make me say things which are totally contradictory to what I said,” the 70-year-old said.
“There was no financing of Sarkozy’s presidential campaign,” he added.
Sarkozy announced he would instruct his lawyers to seek to halt the case against him and sue Takieddine for defamation.
French prosecutors last month said they had charged Sarkozy for “membership in a criminal conspiracy” after more than 40 hours of questioning over four days, prosecutors told AFP.
It adds to charges already filed in 2018 of “accepting bribes,” “benefitting from embezzled public funds” and “illegal campaign financing.”
The October charge was seen to increase the chance of a trial for Sarkozy, who was already poised to become the first former French president in the dock on corruption charges.
Prosecutors suspected that Sarkozy and his associates received tens of millions of euros from Qaddafi’s regime to help finance his election bid.
Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, has always denied wrongdoing.
He has been under pressure since 2012, when the investigative website Mediapart published a document purporting to show that Qaddafi agreed to give Sarkozy up to €50 million ($59 million at current rates).
But four years later, in 2011, Sarkozy was a driving force behind the international military invention that drove Qaddafi from power.
A trained lawyer, Sarkozy has fought the claims of Libya cash by citing presidential immunity, and arguing there is no legal basis in France for prosecuting someone for misusing funds from a foreign country.
He has faced a litany of legal woes since leaving office, including charges relating to fake invoices orchestrated by executives of the Bygmalion public relations firm to mask overspending on his failed 2012 re-election campaign.
In a third case, Sarkozy faces charges of trying to obtain classified information from a judge on an inquiry into claims that he accepted illicit payments from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.
Sarkozy was cleared over the Bettencourt allegations in 2013.


Thai protesters push on despite charges of royal defamation

Updated 25 November 2020

Thai protesters push on despite charges of royal defamation

  • The protesters want the monarchy reformed to be made more accountable
  • Protest leaders remained defiant even after being told they were facing lese majeste charges

BANGKOK: Pro-democracy demonstrators in Thailand on Wednesday again took to the streets of the capital, even as the government escalated its legal battle against them, reviving the use of a harsh law against defaming the monarchy.
On Tuesday, police had issued summonses for 12 protest leaders to answer charges of lese majeste, defaming or insulting key members of the royal family. The offense is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Most of the protest leaders are already facing multiple charges, ranging from blocking traffic to sedition.
The lese majeste law is controversial, because anyone — not just royals or authorities — can lodge a complaint, so it had in the past been used as a weapon in political vendettas. But it has not been employed for the past three years, after King Maha Vajiralongkorn informed the government that he did not wish to see its use. The king has not publicly commented on the law since then.
The protesters want the monarchy reformed to be made more accountable. They also want Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government to step down, and for the constitution, which was implemented under a military government, to be amended to make it more democratic.
Several of the leaders wanted by the police were present Wednesday as protesters gathered in a carnival-like atmosphere next to a bank controlled by the country’s royal family. By dusk, several thousand had gathered peacefully.
Many in the months-long student-led protest movement believe the monarchy holds too much power for a constitutional monarchy. But their challenge is fiercely opposed by royalists, including the army, who consider the royal institution an untouchable bedrock of national identity.
Food and souvenir vendors set up tables along a long stretch of sidewalk along the rim of a park-like compound occupied by the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank. Accessories featuring the image of a yellow rubber duck, a movement icon, could be seen almost everywhere.
The ducks became a symbol of resistance last week when human-size inflatable ducks were brought to a rally outside Parliament and satirically dubbed the protesters’ navy. When police turned water cannons on them, the ducks served as makeshift shields.
At a park in another part of Bangkok, hundreds of supporters of the monarchy gathered for a scheduled appearance by the king. He and Queen Suthida in the past month have been doing street tours where members of the public can see them face to face, an evident attempt to shore up support for the royal institution.
The venue for Wednesday’s pro-democracy rally was changed late Tuesday night by the protesters. It was earlier announced that it would be held outside the offices of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the fortune controlled by the king, estimated to be worth more than $40 billion.
The target was switched to the head office of the Siam Commercial Bank, a publicly held company in which the king is the biggest shareholder. The bank’s headquarters are in a different area of Bangkok, far from the district hosting the Crown Property Bureau and other royal and government offices.
The protest movement announced that the change of venue was to avoid a confrontation with police and royalist counter demonstrators, which they said they feared could trigger a declaration of martial law or a coup by the military.
Barbed wire had already been installed around the Crown Property Bureau offices and the government had declared a no-go zone of 150 meters (500 feet) around the property. Massive shipping containers were also deployed by cranes to block off streets.
A protest rally outside Parliament last week turned chaotic, as police fired water cannons and tear gas at the protesters. At least 55 people were hurt, including six reported to have had gunshot wounds. Police denied firing live rounds or rubber bullets.
The next day, several thousand demonstrators gathered outside the national headquarters of the police in central Bangkok to protest the force used against them. That rally was nonviolent but fueled royalist outrage at the protest movement, as demonstrators defaced the “Royal Thai Police” sign outside its headquarters and scrawled graffiti and chanted slogans that could be considered derogatory of King Vajiralongkorn.
Protest leaders remained defiant even after being told they were facing lese majeste charges. They declared they would have four more straight days of rallies to pressure the government.
One of them, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, posted his response to his summons on Twitter, saying: “I am not afraid anymore. The ceiling (of our demands) is destroyed. Nobody can stop us now.”
A statement issued Wednesday by Free Youth, the driving force in the coalition of protest groups, called Thailand a failed state whose people “are ruled by capitalists, military and feudalists.”
“And under this state, the ruling class oppress the people who are the true founders and heirs of this country, not any great king,” said the statement, the most strident issued so far in the name of the group.