French Court to Hear Elf Aquitaine Case

From Associated Press

After an eight-year investigation, a French court today is to begin hearing the main case in a scandal surrounding the former state-run oil giant Elf Aquitaine. Secret bank accounts, Cartier jewels and oil are certain to figure in the proceedings.

Thirty-seven defendants will face the court, including onetime top officials of Elf such as former President Loik Le Floch-Prigent and Alfred Sirven, both serving prison terms handed down in an earlier Elf-related trial.

This trial, expected to last four months, focuses on the alleged abuse of public funds. It will probe a system by which Elf for years allegedly paid out -- and received -- enormous commissions, inflated bills and used other devices to enrich a chosen few, from African leaders to some of the defendants.

The investigations showed "the existence of a large number of operations carried out on the margins of normal functioning of the group's structures and destined ... to collect assets off the books," according to the 1,045-page indictment.

The trial opens less than two months after an earlier Elf trial finally closed with an appeals court decision striking down a conviction for Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, who had been the star defendant.

The indictment counts well over $145 million in abuse of public funds during Le Floch- Prigent's presidency, which ran from 1989 to 1993.

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