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FRANCE: No Angolans at “Angolagate” Trial

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Oct 15 2008 (IPS) - After a decade’s delay, the defendants on trial for arms trafficking to Angola include figures of the French élite and an Israeli billionaire, but not a single leader from the vast African country has been summonsed by the Paris court judge.

The French court’s task will be to determine the responsibilities and ramifications of a vast illegal arms sales deal with Angola between 1993 and 1998, for an estimated value of 790 million dollars.

The “Angolagate” trial began Oct. 6 and during its first week a long litany of charges, punishable by between five and 10 years in prison, was read out, including illegal weapons deals, embezzlement, misuse of company funds, tax evasion and influence peddling.

Among those on trial are well-known figures such as 81-year-old former French interior minister Charles Pasqua (1993-1995) and his closest aide Jean-Charles Marchiani; the son of late president François Mitterrand (1981-1995), Jean-Christophe Mitterrand; former presidential adviser Jacques Attali; and entrepreneur Pierre Falcone.

A total of 42 people are standing trial, including French politicians and entrepreneurs and Russian-born Israeli billionaire Arkady Gaydamak. A verdict is due on Mar. 4, 2009.

The trial presided by Judge Jean-Baptiste Parlos will hold 58 sessions to analyse the case. Gaydamak, one of the main defendants, is safely away in Israel, which does not extradite Israeli citizens. If necessary he will be sentenced in absentia.

However, the main alleged culprit is Falcone, who in spite of his French nationality was designated by Luanda as Angola’s representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2003.

At the time, articles in the Portuguese press interpreted his appointment to UNESCO, which is based in Paris, as a measure to avoid facing imprisonment by reason of diplomatic immunity.

Although no Angolan citizen has been summoned to testify by Parlos, the indictment alleges that close to three dozen people in high positions in Angola, including President José Eduardo dos Santos himself, received bribes.

In 1993, Luanda needed tanks and munitions to combat the well-disciplined forces of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, at a time when Portugal, Luanda’s main military ally, was forced to take a neutral position because of fierce domestic criticism of its support for dos Santos’ Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

Accusations that Portugal was pro-MPLA dated back to 1975, when the last Portuguese governor of Angola, appointed by the leftwing military officers who overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship in April 1974, turned over power in Angola to the MPLA.

Governor Antonio Alva Rosa Coutinho, known as “The Red Admiral” because of his leftist sympathies, was greatly criticised at the time for rejecting UNITA, as Savimbi had the support of South Africa and the United States, among other countries. This led to the outbreak of Angola’s first civil war (1975-1992).

Against that backdrop, the government of Angola approached France in 1993, but the French government refused to sell it weapons because of the international arms embargo imposed at the beginning of the second Angolan civil war (1992-2002).

Secret negotiations centred on Falcone, an entrepreneur regarded as very close to Pasqua and an associate of Gaydamak, who used his contacts in Moscow to procure the weaponry required by Luanda.

According to the indictment, the arms purchased were not limited to 420 tanks. The list included six warships, 12 helicopters and 170,000 land-mines.

The contracts were drawn up with a profit margin of 50 percent, and partners in the various firms, some of them merely paper companies, became multimillionaires through illegal weapons of war, which caused close to one million deaths in Angola.

The Angolan money was deposited in the accounts of several French companies in Paris, Geneva and Tel Aviv, and then forwarded to tax havens in the Virgin Islands or Monaco.

The prosecutors also allege that Brenco International, a company owned by Falcone, provided “young ladies” in Paris to entertain high-ranking Angolan military officers.

Falcone’s defence counsel argues that the trial in Paris is illegal because the arms did not pass through French territory, a point taken up with alacrity by the present French Defence Minister, Hervé Morin, according to the Portuguese news agency Lusa.

“This trial has not emerged at the best time for the French government, since the authorities have been attempting to forge closer ties with Luanda, as demonstrated by President Nicolas Sarcozy’s visit in May to Angola, an oil-rich country that is the largest producer in Africa,” says a Lusa commentary signed with the initials JSD.

It is possible that the trial could overshadow the achievements of Sarkozy’s trip to Angola, “obtained God knows how,” Angolan political scientist Eugenio Costa Almeida, who writes columns for several Portuguese papers, told IPS.

Costa Almeida quoted Jacques Marraud des Grottes, Africa regional director for the French oil company Total, who said on the occasion of Sarkozy’s visit: “the African continent is increasingly important in terms of reserves and production.”

The French merely confirm the fact that “Africa represents more than 10 percent of world reserves, and Angola is increasingly important in this context,” Costa Almeida said.

“As for the French company Total, Africa represents 34 percent of its production, and next year Angola, the largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, will preside over the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC),” said the political scientist.

The “Angolagate” trial may not be convenient to political and economic interests in France, but it is being held in a country with a strong tradition of an independent judiciary.

“This business of countries wanting to keep their judicial branch autonomous from the political and economic powers is crazy,” said Costa Almeida, with irony directed at the MPLA government in Angola.

“In a serious country, where the party is in power, and the party is the people and the people are the party, this would be unimaginable!” he concluded.

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