Rajoy Urged to Testify in Spain Trial as Ex-Ally Faces 20 Years

  • Defendants accused of channeling funds to Swiss accounts
  • Plaintiffs asked court to call Rajoy to witness stand

Caretaker Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was pressured to testify as a witness in a corruption trial of former party officials who are accused of funneling millions of euros in kickbacks through secret offshore accounts.

On the first day of the trial near Madrid, two plaintiffs called for Rajoy to take the stand as Luis Barcenas, the former treasurer of the governing People’s Party, was told he could face decades in jail. Barcenas, 59, is among 37 people accused of running a bribery ring over at least 15 years. The trial will focus on the period from 1999 to 2005, leading up to and immediately following 61-year-old Rajoy’s appointment as party leader in 2004.

“We make this request not because of his role as prime minister but because of his role as president of the party,” Mariano Benitez de Lugo, counsel for the Association of Democratic Lawyers for Europe, told the court on Tuesday.

The network of businessmen and former PP officials accepted payments from companies bidding on public contracts awarded by party members, according to investigators. Prosecutors are seeking a 45-year sentence for Barcenas and 125 years for alleged ringleader Francisco Correa, though in practice criminals typically serve no more than 20 years in Spain. Barcenas denies any wrongdoing and Correa’s lawyer, Juan Antonio Gragera, said his client maintains his innocence.

The graft allegations dogging Rajoy’s party contributed to a political deadlock that has left Spain without a proper government since the PP lost its majority in December. Although Rajoy won the most seats, rival parties refused to support him saying his ties to corrupt officials made him unfit to govern triggering a repeat election in June. Even so, the premier is now closing in on a second term after Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez, his main opponent, was ousted by his party. Rajoy denies any wrongdoing.

The trial “will remind Spaniards that the political crisis is still with us,” Lluis Orriols, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said in a telephone interview.

Rajoy’s SMS

The hearing follows an eight-year investigation that has provided the backbeat to Rajoy’s time in office. Barcenas became a by-word for the corruption at the heart of the Spanish political class after El Mundo newspaper published text messages that Rajoy sent to offer him support while he was under criminal investigation in 2013.

“Be strong,” Rajoy wrote to Barcenas two days after the former treasurer’s Swiss bank account was uncovered in January 2013. “Luis, nothing is easy. But we do what we can,” the acting prime minister wrote in 2012.

The so-called Gurtel case is the most comprehensive of more than two dozen involving actual or former PP officials moving through the Spanish courts and will last at least three months. Another case, which may examine the acting prime minister’s possible ties to a secret party slush fund, is due to come to trial later.

Correa and his associates are accused of misusing public money from at least six different public authorities including the PP strongholds of Castilla y Leon and Madrid as they parlayed their ties with the party elite into a lucrative business. Correa himself was famously photographed in a morning suit at the wedding of then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s daughter in 2002. Correa is accused of making 40 million euros ($45 million) through the scheme.

‘Permanent Irritation’

The PP itself and Rajoy’s former Health Minister Ana Mato both face civil liabilities for benefiting from the scheme, though neither faces criminal charges. The judges denied a request from one of the plaintiffs to call Rajoy as a witness, though they could still reverse that decision later in the proceedings.

Tuesday’s opening session began with an hour’s delay as more than 200 lawyers and journalists queued alongside the defendants to get through security at the court in San Fernando de Henares, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Spanish capital. As the trial began, a court official spent more than an hour reading out the charge sheet. Hearings are expected to run for at least three months.

The roughly 300 witnesses due to be called include many of the leading PP figures of Rajoy’s generation, such as Senator Javier Arenas and former Interior Ministers Jaime Mayor and Angel Acebes. Former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Rodrigo Rato is also due to testify.

On Tuesday however Rato was in an adjacent chamber at the court where he’s on trial for fraud for misuse of his corporate credit card while chairman of Bankia SA. Rato, who faces up to 4 and a half years in jail, told the court that he was sure his spending was legal and no one at the bank had ever questioned it.

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