PARIS, October 5 – Forty-two people including the son of late French president Francois Mitterrand and dozens of businessman, politicians and public figures go on trial Monday over a vast "arms-to-Angola" scandal.,
Dubbed "Angolagate" by the French press, the long-running affair has cast a shadow over a raft of senior government officials, including many who served during Mitterrand’s two-term Socialist presidency from 1981 to 1995.
It revolves around the trafficking of 790 million dollars (590 million euros) in arms to the southern African country from 1993 to 1998, at the height of a bloody civil war that left half a million dead.
Two businessman, Frenchman Pierre Falcone, 54, and the Russian-born Israeli billionaire Arcady Gaydamak, 56, are at the heart of the case, accused of acting as go-betweens for illegal arms deliveries from eastern Europe.
Both face 10 years in jail for influence-peddling and illegal arms sales.
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, 61, who was an adviser on African affairs at the Elysee presidential palace from 1986 to 1992, is accused of "complicity in illegal trade and embezzlement" and taking bribes worth 2.6 million dollars.
The charges against Mitterrand, who risks five years in jail, state that he had a "determining role" in putting the Angolan regime in touch with Falcone.
French former interior minister Charles Pasqua, 81, and his right-hand man Jean-Charles Marchiani, 65, also risk 10 years for influence peddling in favour of the Angolan authorities.
Pasqua served twice as interior minister, from 1986 to 1988 and 1993 to 1995, and is best known for pushing through a series of anti-immigration laws.
Other high-profile defendants include the French thriller writer Paul-Loup Sulitzer and Mitterrand’s one-time advisor Jacques Attali, who risk five years for selling Angola access to their political and media contacts.
Judges believe Angolan President Eduardo Dos Santos turned to Falcone, the boss of weapons firm Brenco International, and his associate Gaydamak, in 1992 after France refused to sell him a shipment of tanks to shore up his forces in the war against UNITA rebels.
Over the next half-decade, 420 tanks, 150,000 shells, 170,000 landmines, 12 helicopters and six warships were trafficked into the war-wracked country.
Angolan payment was channelled via firms in Paris, Geneva or Tel Aviv, to shell companies in Jersey, the Virgin Islands or Monaco, with suitcases of cash used to pay off middlemen, prosecutors suspect.
Although no Angolans are charged in the French case, prosecutors allege that 30 officials including Dos Santos also received tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks.
Falcone has enjoyed diplomatic immunity as a UNESCO representative in Angola since 2003, but it is not recognised by France. He is expected to be present for the trial, which runs until March 4 next year.
Gaymadak, who has taken refuge in Israel, will be tried in absentia.
Defence lawyers are arguing that France is not qualified to try the case since the arms did not transit via France — an argument backed recently by Defence Minister Herve Morin.
The Angolagate case long poisoned relations between Paris and Luanda and the trial comes at an awkward time for French authorities keen to renew ties with the oil-rich state, which emerged in 2002 from a three-decade civil war.