Sarkozy`s best man charged in kickback probe

Nicolas Bazire became the latest in a string of close allies to be confronted by a criminal investigation.

Paris: Fresh sleaze claims hit French President Nicolas Sarkozy`s re-election hopes on Thursday when the best man at his wedding was charged with graft by judges probing alleged kickbacks on an arms deal.

Just seven months before the French leader is to go to the country to seek another five-year mandate, Nicolas Bazire became the latest in a string of close allies to be confronted by a criminal investigation.

Allegations that a 1995 presidential campaign by Sarkozy`s mentor Edouard Balladur was funded through a Pakistani submarine contract follow claims members of the President`s party received brown envelopes from an heiress.
Sarkozy`s camp could also find itself implicated in
allegations that a rival centre-right group supporting his
predecessor as French leader Jacques Chirac received suitcases
of cash from African leaders.

Bazire, a businessman and former government official who
was best man at Sarkozy`s wedding to supermodel Carla Bruni in
February 2008, was detained yesterday and questioned overnight
before being charged.

Bazire`s lawyer, Jean-Yves Lienard, said that during
questioning and prior to his release on bail his client
affirmed his "total lack of involvement" in the matter and
branded witness claims to the contrary "fantasist".

Another Sarkozy ally, Thierry Gaubert, was charged
yesterday as part of the probe into the Pakistani deal. Both
men are now subject to judicial probes into "misuse of public
funds" and could face trial, judicial sources said.

Prosecutors suspect middlemen paid huge kickbacks on the
Pakistani contract to former prime minister Balladur`s 1995
presidential campaign, for which the then budget minister
Sarkozy served as chief spokesman.

Bazire, 54, was Balladur`s one time chief of staff and
campaign manager. Gaubert worked for Sarkozy when he was mayor
of the Paris suburb of Neuilly and was his communications
adviser as minister.

Witnesses have told investigators Bazire had a large safe
stuffed with cash during the 1995 campaign. He is now a member
of the board of luxury goods giant LVMH, whose shares dropped
6.1 per cent today in a falling market.

Controversy over the arms contract erupted when
investigators began probing whether a 2002 bomb attack in
Karachi that killed 11 French engineers working on the project
was a revenge attack for promised bribes not paid.


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