A Paris court convicted the son of the late President Francois Mitterrand, a former minister and others who were once among France’s elite of crimes related to illegal arms sales to Angola during its civil war.
The “Angolagate” trial centred on $790 million in arms sales to Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos’s MPLA between 1993 and 1998, when it was fighting UNITA rebels led by Jonas Savimbi. The 27-year war ended with Savimbi’s battlefield death in 2002.
In the dock were 42 people accused of selling arms to the MPLA in defiance of a UN arms embargo, or of taking cash from the arms dealers to use their influence to facilitate the sales.
The list of defendants read like a who’s who of French high society in the 1990s, with politicians from the left and right and even a bestselling thriller writer, Paul-Loup Sulitzer.
The trial was awkward for the French government, which is keen to cultivate warm ties with Angola, an oil exporter where French energy giant Total is the number two producer.
The Dos Santos government made it clear it was displeased about old arms deals being exposed in court. President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Luanda weeks before the trial opened last year, urging Dos Santos to forget “misunderstandings” of the past.
Dos Santos has a firm grip on power and the Angolan media has paid little attention to the trial in France, raising hopes for French businesses that they will not be frozen out.
The two main protagonists of “Angolagate” were French arms dealer Pierre Falcone and Russian-Israeli businessman Arkady Gaydamak. They were convicted of illegal arms deals, tax fraud, money laundering, embezzlement and other crimes.
Both received six-year jail terms and Falcone was arrested and taken out of court by two gendarmes as soon as the judge finished reading out the sentences. Gaydamak is on the run.
Angola had tried to help Falcone’s cause by appointing him its ambassador to UNESCO, theoretically giving him diplomatic immunity, but the court rejected that argument.
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, once his father’s Africa adviser, was cleared of the charge that he knowingly facilitated arms shipments to Angola, but was found guilty of taking over $2 million (R14 million) from Falcone and Gaydamak to promote their interests.
He received a suspended two-year jail sentence, which means he will not serve prison time unless he commits another offence, and was fined €375 000.
Mitterrand, who in his influential heyday when his father was president was nicknamed “Papamadit” or “Daddy Told Me”, stood silently before the judge as his sentence was read out.
The thriller writer Sulitzer, who admitted during the trial that he had “put his finger in the honeypot” by accepting money from the arms traders in exchange for high-powered contacts, was also in court to receive his suspended 18-month jail sentence.
Samuel Mandelsaft, a pensioner nicknamed “Plastic Bertrand” for delivering shopping bags full of cash under Falcone’s orders, was sentenced in absentia to three years in jail.
Charles Pasqua, former interior minister and a fixture of the French right for decades, was found guilty of taking cash from the arms dealers even though he knew of their activities. He received a three-year term of which two years were suspended.
As minister, Pasqua used his influence to obtain French national honours for Gaydamak “for services given to the trade of meat products”.