, PARIS, Jan 28 – A French court on Thursday acquitted former prime minister Dominique de Villepin of charges of plotting to smear Nicolas Sarkozy to sabotage his presidential bid.
The court ruled there were no grounds to convict the 56-year-old politician of complicity to slander Sarkozy in 2004, when the two men were angling to succeed president Jacques Chirac.
The acquittal was an outright victory for Villepin in the five-year legal saga and was seen as bolstering his chances of a political comeback as he sets his sights on the 2012 presidential vote.
Villepin showed no emotion while the verdict was being read in the Paris courtroom as his wife, daughter and son looked on.
The verdict coincidentally came on Sarkozy\’s 55th birthday and while the president was chairing a meeting at the Elysee palace to agree on measures to curb France\’s ballooning deficit.
The complex case centres on a list — later proved to have been fabricated — of account holders at the Clearstream financial clearing house who allegedly took bribes from the sale of French warships to Taiwan.
Sarkozy\’s name was on the list and the French leader alleges the scandal was fabricated to tarnish him ahead of his party\’s nomination for the 2007 presidential vote, which he won.
"It was not proven that Dominique de Villepin knew that the lists were fake," ruled presiding judge Dominique Pauthe.
Villepin was cleared on all four counts in the case dubbed France\’s trial of the decade: complicity to slander, to use forgeries, dealing in stolen property and breach of trust.
Three other defendants were convicted: ex-aerospace executive Jean-Louis Gergorin who admitted to leaking the fake list to investigators, Imad Lahoud who confessed to adding Sarkozy\’s name to the list and accountant Florian Bourges, who obtained data on account holders that were later falsified.
Journalist Denis Robert, who introduced Bourges to Lahoud, was acquitted.