Villepin ordered to stand trial in French smear case

PARIS — Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin will stand trial on criminal charges of complicity in an alleged smear campaign that targeted Nicolas Sarkozy before he was elected president, a judicial official confirmed Wednesday.

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Investigating judges ordered Villepin and four other defendants late Tuesday to stand trial in a four-year-old scandal known here as the Clearstream affair. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.

A protégé of former President Jacques Chirac and longstanding political rival of Sarkozy, Villepin has denied all charges of «complicity in calumnious denunciations.»

The trial, which may not begin until 2010, will revisit one of the most poisonous scandals of the Chirac era.

The case revolves around secret investigations and bribery allegations involving Clearstream, a Luxembourg-based bank clearing house.

Villepin is accused of engineering the dissemination of a fake list of secret accounts at Clearstream that appeared to link several French politicians, including Sarkozy, to kickbacks from the sale of frigates to Taiwan in 1991.

When the list first surfaced in 2004, both Villepin and Sarkozy were ministers in Chirac’s government.

Over the past year, Villepin has repeatedly accused Sarkozy of manipulating the case.

«Nothing justifies this decision to go to trial,» Villepin, now working as a lawyer, said in a statement. «Throughout the judicial investigation, the reality of the facts and of the law has been twisted in favor of a single plaintiff who today is at the same time the president of the republic.»

Sarkozy is a civil plaintiff in the scandal. By virtue of his office, he presides over the Magistrates Council as well as the Justice Ministry.

The investigation began focusing on Villepin last year, when files recovered from the computer of a retired French intelligence official revealed that two suspects in the case said that Villepin, acting under orders from Chirac, had instructed them to undermine Sarkozy by anonymously sending the fake banking list to a magistrate.

The intelligence official, General Philippe Rondot, had been asked by Villepin in January 2004 to investigate the list outside official channels. Since then, Villepin’s apartment and offices have been searched and he has been required to testify on several occasions.

The other suspects ordered by the judges, Jean-Marie d’Huy and Henri Pons, to stand trial include Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former executive of the aeronautics consortium EADS with ties to Villepin, and a computer specialist, Imad Lahoud. Gergorin has admitted having sent the phony list of bank accounts to investigators and Lahoud is suspected of having forged them.

Denis Robert, a journalist accused of having been in the possession of the list, and Florian Bourges, a lawyer and former auditor, also face charges.

The charges filed against Villepin go further than many lawyers had expected. The public prosecutor had proposed to order the former prime minister to stand trial only on charges of complicity in the case for failing to alert the justice system about the fake account listings.

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DEL