A Paris court on Monday found three former French government officials and three others guilty on charges involving millions of euros in kickbacks from arms sales to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia signed in 1994.
The court handed the men prison sentences of two to five years over the so-called “Karachi affair” which has dogged former prime minister Edouard Balladur, facing trial on charges he used the kickbacks to help fund his failed 1995 presidential bid.
They were the first convictions to emerge after more than a quarter-century of investigations named after the Pakistani city where a bus carrying French defence engineers was blown up in 2002, killing 15 people.
Al Qaeda was initially suspected of the attack, but the focus later shifted to the arms deals on suspicions the bombing may have been in retaliation for non-payment of promised bribes.
The three former aides are Nicolas Bazire, Balladur’s former campaign manager; Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, a former adviser to his defence minister Francois Leotard; and Thierry Gaubert, a former aide to then budget minister Nicolas Sarkozy who became president in 2007.
Bazire and Donnedieu de Vabres were sentenced to three years in prison, with the court saying Bazire “knew perfectly well” that 10.25 million francs (nearly 1.6 million euros) from dubious sources had landed in Balladur’s campaign accounts.
Gaubert was handed a two-year sentence, as was Dominique Castellan, a former head of the international division of French naval defence contractor DCN (since renamed Naval Group).
Two Lebanese middlemen who acted as go-betweens for the bribes and kickbacks, Ziad Takieddine and Abdul Rahman El-Assir, were sentenced to five years in prison.
The two refused to appear at trial and warrants have been issued for their arrest.
The others convicted said they would appeal the ruling, and remain free men until then.
Paying bribes on arms deals was common practice when Balladur’s government won contracts to sell submarines to Pakistan and frigates to Saudi Arabia in 1994.
Earning kickbacks on the deals, however, was banned.
Investigators suspect the French of having paid some 327m euros ($359m) in bribes to facilitate the deals, triggering some 13m euros in kickbacks.
The court said on Monday the officials knew of the “exorbitant commissions” paid in the deals, which constituted “an exceptionally grave threat to the public economic order, and to the confidence in the functioning of public affairs.” Balladur, 91, and Leotard, 78, have also been charged in the case.