by Julio Godoy
(IPS) PARIS -- The French judiciary is investigating allegations of corruption involving several former high-ranking public officials.
Former French ambassador at the United Nations Jean-Bernard Merimee faces accusations of "influence peddling" and "corruption of foreign officials" through the oil-for-food program in Iraq during the sanctions before the 2003 invasion.
The oil-for-food program, which operated from 1996 to 2003, allowed the regime in Baghdad to sell determined amounts of oil to finance import of food and other humanitarian goods.
The accusations against Merimee were made by French judge Philippe Courroye, who is holding an inquiry into allegations of bribes paid by the former Iraqi regime to French officials and private companies.
Before Merimee, 68, former ambassador Serge Boidevaix was charged with receiving illegal payments in oil vouchers from the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein.
Merimee is accused of receiving vouchers for some 2 million barrels of oil between 2001 and 2003 and selling them to two French companies operating in Iraq. Boidevaix is accused of receiving vouchers for 32.6 million barrels.
Merimee was French ambassador to the United Nations between 1991 and 1995, and served later as ambassador to Italy and as special adviser on European affairs to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Among the private companies whose executives face corruption charges is the French oil giant Total.
Tracfin, the French agency to counter money laundering, reported in 2002 that Total paid up to $5 million in illegal commissions to Iraqi officials through a network of bank accounts in Switzerland.
A police report earlier this year said that "numerous evidence elements show that Total was deeply involved in several infractions (in the oil-for-food program), either directly in the acquisition of oil products, or indirectly, by remunerating (Iraqi) officials through different middlemen."
French officials' involvement in corruption scandals around defense deals also is being investigated. In one case prosecutor Marie-Christine Daubigney called former official Jean-Charles Marchiani "a swindler" and sought four years imprisonment for him and a fine of $180,000.
Marchiani is being investigated by a Paris tribunal for his involvement in exporting military equipment to the United Arab Emirates. Prosecutor Daubigney said Marchiani received $1.6 million in commissions from German and French military companies as remuneration for illegal intermediary activities.
Marchiani admitted receiving the money but argued that it was for "secret service operations" approved by French authorities, including President Jacques Chirac. No French official has testified on Marchiani's behalf.
French intelligence services also stand accused in a corruption case relating to export of German military equipment to Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s.
Documents seized by German police during the arrest of former German deputy defense minister Ludwig Holger Pfahls showed that he had escaped arrest for five years with help from French secret services.
Pfahls has admitted he took $2.3 million in illegal commissions from weapons dealer Karlheinz Schreiber for illegal lobbying for the sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia in 1991.
After the German police launched an international arrest warrant against him in 1999, Pfahls lived clandestinely in several countries in Southeast Asia, and in Britain, South Africa and France. He was arrested July 13, 2004, in Paris.
German investigators said they seized documents suggesting Pfahls enjoyed the protection of French intelligence services during his years on the run. The documents suggest that when he had a problem, Pfahls would call a telephone number, and someone would slip him through international borders.
A German tribunal found Pfahls guilty of corruption and tax evasion in August this year and sentenced him to two-and-a-half years in prison. He was released Sept. 1 on the ground that he had completed most of the sentence in preventive imprisonment during the hearings.
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