French court acquits ex-PM in slander case

Dominique de Villepin was acquitted by an appeals court of charges he took part in a murky smear campaign against President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Paris: Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was acquitted by an appeals court on Wednesday of charges he took part in a murky smear campaign against his archrival, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

A lower court acquitted Villepin of charges of complicity in slander in the so-called Clearstream affair last year, but the prosecutors appealed and were seeking a 15-month suspended sentence against the former prime minister.

Wednesday`s acquittal caps the pitched six-year-long battle between Villepin — who is best known internationally for his impassioned 2003 United Nation speech against the United States` invasion of Iraq — and Sarkozy, a fellow conservative.

"After six years of unprecedented fighting tooth and nail, after six years of difficulties for my family, the justice system has recognized my innocence for a second time," the silver-haired politician told a scrum of journalists outside the courtroom.

The Clearstream case riveted France`s political scene after a mysterious list surfaced naming clients who allegedly held secret accounts at a Luxembourg clearing house. The accounts were purportedly created to hold bribes from a 1991 sale of warships to Taiwan, and other shady income. The list included names of prominent French public figures, including Sarkozy, but was later deemed a hoax.

Villepin was given the phony list and he asked a retired general to investigate its origins. The indictment said Villepin should have alerted judicial authorities to the scam earlier, and he was tried for complicity in slander.

The appeals court judges explained Wednesday`s acquittal, saying it hadn`t been proven that Villepin knew the lists were fake, nor had any role by the former premier in the scam.

Officials from the Elysee presidential palace have said Sarkozy will not comment on Wednesday`s acquittal.

Sarkozy and Villepin`s rivalry grew out of their time as ministers in former President Jacques Chirac`s cabinet, where both were considered top contenders for the presidency.

Bureau Report