The trial of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy for corruption and influence peddling was suspended less than two hours after it started, to allow a medical report on one of the defendants.
Sarkozy is being accused of having tried to illegally obtain information from a magistrate about an investigation involving him in 2014. He stands trial in a Paris court along with his lawyer Thierry Herzog, 65, and the magistrate, Gilbert Azibert, 73.
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They face a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a maximum fine of 1 million euros ($1.2m). They deny any wrongdoing.
The trial started on Monday in the absence of Azibert, whose lawyer requested the hearings to be postponed. He argued his client’s bad health makes it risky for him to travel and appear in court amid the coronavirus pandemic, leading the court to suspend proceedings pending an expert medical report. The trial will resume on Thursday.
Sarkozy and Herzog are suspected of promising Azibert a job in Monaco in exchange for leaking information about an investigation into suspected illegal financing of the 2007 presidential campaign by France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
In 2014, Sarkozy and Herzog used secret mobile phones – registered to the alias name of “Paul Bismuth” – to be able to speak privately as they feared their conversations were being tapped.
Sarkozy and Herzog explained that they bought the phones to avoid being targeted by illegal phone tapping. Investigative judges, however, suspect they actually wanted to avoid being tapped by investigators.
Judges have found that discussions between Sarkozy and his lawyer suggested they had knowledge that judicial investigators at the time tapped their conversations on their official phones – the two mentioned “judges listening”.
Sarkozy argued that he never intervened to help Azibert, who did not get the job and retired in 2014.
Investigative judges consider that as soon as a deal has been offered, it constitutes a criminal offence even if the promise was not fulfilled.
“This is going to be a very closely watched trial,” said Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris. “Nicolas Sarkozy is someone still very much in the public eye here in France. He has a very widespread support among many people in the conservative party. He tried to run in the last presidential campaign.
“These high-profile cases fuel this sentiment among many French people that many politicians in France simply abuse their positions in power. Nicola Sarkozy for his part has always said that these allegations are untrue and that they are politically motivated.”
Legal proceedings against Sarkozy have been dropped in the Bettencourt case.
Sarkozy pointed at judicial harassment, accusing judges of breaching lawyer-client privilege via wiretapping.
“I don’t want things that I didn’t do to be held against me. The French need to know… that I’m not a rotten person,” he told news broadcaster BFM earlier this month.
He said he was facing the trial in a “combative” mood.
This is the first time a former president faces trial for corruption in France.
Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, was found guilty in 2011 of misuse of public money, breach of trust and conflict of interest and given a two-year suspended prison sentence for actions during his time as mayor of Paris before he was president from 1995 to 2007.
Illegal financing claims
Sarkozy’s name has appeared for years in several other judicial investigations.
Allegations, which include illegal financing of his 2007 campaign by the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, cast a shadow over Sarkozy’s comeback attempt for the 2017 presidential election.
After failing to be chosen as candidate by his conservative party, he withdrew from active politics.
Sarkozy remained the most popular figure amid French right-wing voters in recent years. His memoirs, The Time of Storms, published this summer, was a bestseller for weeks.
Sarkozy was handed preliminary charges including “illegal campaign financing” in the Libyan investigation, which has been under way since 2013 and has prompted the wiretapping of his phones.
Earlier this month, French-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine retracted his previous statements that he delivered suitcases from Libya containing 5 million euros ($5.9m) in cash to Sarkozy and his former chief of staff, Claude Gueant.
Instead, he told news broadcaster BFM and magazine Paris-Match that there was “no Libyan financing”.
Sarkozy said that the truth “finally comes out”.
Meanwhile, the former president will stand another trial in the spring of 2021 along with 13 other people on charges of illegal financing of his 2012 presidential campaign.
His conservative party and a company named Bygmalion are accused of using a special invoicing system to conceal unauthorised overspending.
They are suspected of having spent 42.8 million euros ($50.7m), almost twice the maximum authorised, to finance the campaign, which ended up in victory for Socialist rival Francois Hollande.