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The BBC's John Sopel in Paris
"The most wanted man may be in the arms of the law but he's still eluding French justice"
 real 28k

Sunday, 4 February, 2001, 11:22 GMT
France defends Sirven case
Journalists throng around a police car at the entrance of a court building in Frankfurt
The German authorities got first crack at questioning Sirven
French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has rebuffed criticism of his government's handling of the arrest of a businessman at the centre of a corruption scandal involving the former foreign minister, Roland Dumas.

Alfred Sirven arrived in Frankfurt on Saturday from the Philippines where he had been arrested on an international warrant.

Lionel Jospin
Lionel Jospin: on the defensive
A German magistrate threw out appeals by the French authorities that he should immediately be returned to France.

Mr Jospin said the main thing was Mr Sirven was back in Europe.

But the BBC Paris correspondent, John Sopel, says Mr Dumas' trial has been thrown into disarray by the arrest of Mr Sirven, who is said to know too much.

German interest

The former second-in-command of the then nationalised French oil industry, Elf is wanted in connection with a series of multi-million dollar scandals.

Alfred Sirven and journalists
Sirven: Mobbed by the media in Manila
He was put on a Lufthansa plane from Manila to Frankfurt after missing an Air France flight.

When the plane touched down on German soil, a French military aircraft was waiting to take him to Paris.

But the French had not anticipated that the German authorities would take such a keen interest in Mr Sirven.

German prosecutors want to hear Mr Sirven testify on alleged kickbacks paid when the east German company, Leuna, was sold to Elf in 1992.

'No mistakes'

Magistrates suspect the funds were partially used to finance the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) when it was run by former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Mr Jospin insisted that no mistakes had been made in the arrest.

"We made the choice for Mr Sirven to be as rapidly as possible no longer in the Philippines... but in a country belonging to the European judicial sphere," he said.

There were concerns that the suspect might have disappeared if he had remained in the Philippines, he added.

Mr Sirven is the alleged pay-master of a multi-million-dollar slush fund at Elf and is widely considered to be the missing link in the corruption trial of Roland Dumas.

On the run

In France, Mr Dumas and his former lover are being tried for bribery and misuse of public funds, along with a number of former Elf executives.

Former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas arriving at the Paris courthouse
The Dumas trial has been thrown into disarray
Mr Sirven, who until now was being tried in absentia, said on his arrest in Manila that he had done nothing wrong, and was the victim of a frame-up.

He is reported to have entered the Philippines using the passport of a dead man.

Philippines Justice Secretary, Hernando Perez, said French officials believe Sirven left France with about 19 billion pesos - nearly $400m - in company funds.

The on-going corruption trial in Paris is one of the biggest in France in recent years and part of a wider scandal involving the sale of French warships to Taiwan.

Mr Dumas is accused of benefiting from more than $9m that his lover, Ms Deviers-Joncour, was paid by Elf, for her work as a consultant and lobbyist - a job that he allegedly secured for her.

Mr Dumas was forced to resign as president of France's highest court after the 53-year-old former lingerie model published a book, The Whore of the Republic, giving her version of the scandal.

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See also:

31 Jan 01 | Europe
Dumas 'threatens judges'
30 Jan 01 | Europe
Dumas rejects sleaze charges
24 Jan 01 | Europe
Dumas 'heartbroken' over trial
22 Jan 01 | Europe
Dumas on trial over sleaze claims
22 Jan 01 | Europe
A potential political earthquake
01 Mar 00 | Europe
Dumas resigns in corruption probe
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