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French victims ask their president to surrender immunity

20 November, 2010

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PARIS: Families of French engineers killed in a 2002 bomb attack in Pakistan pressed on Thursday for President Nicolas Sarkozy to testify over alleged corruption linked to the deaths.

A lawyer for the families said they had lodged a demand with investigating magistrate Renaud Van Ruymbeke that he question Sarkozy, former president Jacques Chirac and former prime minister Dominique de Villepin in the case.

Van Ruymbeke is investigating parts of a complex case linked to sales of arms to Pakistan that has spawned allegations of illegal political funding, implicating Sarkozy’s ally, former prime minister Edouard Balladur.

“Mr Sarkozy owes us this hearing, to say what he has to say — he who has described this financial investigation as a fairytale,” Sandrine Leclerc, the daughter of one of the men killed, told reporters.

“The civil parties insist that Nicolas Sarkozy can be heard, even if he is covered by presidential immunity,” said the families’ lawyer Olivier Morice. “Nicolas Sarkozy must remove all ambiguity,” he added.

Under France’s constitution, the president of the republic cannot be sued, tried or forced to testify during his mandate. Morice said however that he can testify voluntarily.

Investigators suspect the bombing in Karachi in 2002, which killed 11 French engineers and at least three Pakistanis, was revenge for the cancelling of commissions for officials in the sale of submarines to Pakistan. They have also been investigating whether money paid in commissions ended up being channelled to fund political activities in France. Witnesses have told investigators Sarkozy approved the commissions as budget minister at the time.

Sarkozy has not responded to the latest developments but previously dismissed the case as “a grotesque fairytale”.Presidential immunity means Sarkozy can refuse to be questioned while in office, and he has already publicly dismissed any link between the attack and political corruption. But other politicians of the mid-1990s might have to testify in an affair that has already been seized on by media, making life uncomfortable for a president grappling with some of the lowest ratings of any recent French leader, with 18 months left until a presidential election.

Charles Millon, who was defence minister in the mid-1990s, has told investigating magistrates that Chirac ordered the payment of certain commissions linked to the deal to be halted, a judicial source said.

End.

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