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Double game

by Claudia Isabel Rittel
The political elite that led France in the early 1990s is in difficulty today because of illegal arms deals with Angola. After receiving a three-year prison sentence himself, Charles Pasqua, the home minister, has levelled serious accusations against Jacques Chirac, the former president, and members of his administration.

It is probably not what ex-interior minister Charles Pasqua ever expected: a year in jail without parole and a further two-years of suspended prison sentence. But that is precisely the sentence of a criminal court in Paris of late October. Pasqua was accused of political corruption. He allegedly provided political cover for illegal arms shipments in the 1990s and received kickbacks amounting to more than € 300,000.

At the heart of the scandal is the supply of military equipment worth € 526 million. Old Soviet stock was illegally shipped to Angola in 1993 and 1994 via France. When the whistle was blown on the trafficking in December 2000, the French press dubbed the scandal “Angolagate”. The consignments had consisted of helicopters, warships, tanks and ammunition. Some 170,000 landmines were also sold to Angola.

Angola’s civil war was a proxy war, in which the Soviet Union and Cuba provided arms and military backed the regime of Eduardo dos Santos while the United States supported the UNITA rebels. In 1991, the warring parties signed a peace accord under which the two sides agreed to disarm. UNITA failed to do so, and President dos Santos thus saw himself on the defensive in 1993.

Dos Santos therefore needed a new arms supplier. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, whose father was president of France in the 1980s, introduced his friend Pierre Falcone as a business partner. In November 1993, Falcone teamed up with the Russian-Israeli businessman Arcadi Gaydamak to supply an initial consignment of small arms for $ 47 million. The heavy military equipment followed in 1994. The arms deals were done with the help of a French company under contact to the interior ministry. It was headed by Pasqua. Payment was made in oil, a commodity Angola has in abundant supply.

The two main defendants, Falcone and Gaydamak, each received six-year prison sentences and hefty fines. But while Falcone was arrested on the spot in the courtroom, Gaydamak is still at large. He absconded before the trial started, fleeing to Israel first. He is sad to be living in Moscow today. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand was found guilty of having received $ 2 million for brokering the deal.

Pasqua’s conviction shows that the political cover-up of the deals extended to the top echelons of government. Jean-Baptiste Parlos, the president of the Paris court, said he had “rarely encountered organised concealment of lucrative criminal acts on such a scale”, with perpetrators using their “mask of respectability” to defy the law.

However, some even higher-ranking politicians may have been involved too. After being convicted, Pasqua told the French press that, at the time of the shipments, the president, the prime minister, the finance minister and the defence minister had been aware of what was going on. Pasqua demanded that all relevant documents be made public, indicating that Chirac and Dominique Villepin, the former prime minister, had been involved. Both denied the charges.

“It is really something new to finally see behind-the-scenes politicians being convicted,” was the comment of Mathias John, an arms expert with Amnesty International. He praises the French judiciary for casting a spotlight on “the corruption that surrounds the international arms trade”.

According to John Emeka Akude, a Nigerian political scientist, no one in Africa is surprised about how Europeans did business. However, he says that African governments now worry that “Europeans have lost control of their judiciary”, adding that this was an incentive to do more business with China in future.

Claudia Isabel Rittel