France 'manipulating' case against businessman sought over Sarkozy allegations: lawyer

LONDON (Reuters) - The lawyer for a French businessman suspected of funneling money from former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to finance Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign accused French authorities on Thursday of manipulating the case against him.

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Alexandre Djouhri, 58, is fighting extradition from Britain after being arrested on a European arrest warrant (EAW) at London’s Heathrow Airport last month after arriving on a flight from his home in Switzerland.

He is wanted by France over a series of allegations including use of a fake document, active corruption of a foreign public official, conspiracy to misappropriate public funds and three charges of money-laundering.

The case is connected to accusations that former President Sarkozy received money from Gaddafi to fund his successful election bid in 2007, allegations he denies and has dismissed as “grotesque”.

At London’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Djouhri’s lawyer Aaron Watkins said his client would be opposing extradition on the grounds the request was politically motivated and that the French case had not sufficiently progressed. He will also raise concerns about French prison conditions.

Watkins said there were concerns about “manipulation” by the French authorities, citing how they had sought to arrest Djouhri on a visit to Britain rather taking action against him in Switzerland which does not take part in the EAW system.

“We know there appears to be some manipulation of the extradition process,” Watkins said.

In Paris, a Justice Ministry spokesman said he could not make any comment because he had no knowledge of the case.

England’s Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot, who will decide on the extradition, said the main issue would be the political argument, noting “It’s not a normal French request”.

The full extradition hearing is due to start on April 17 but Djouhri’s legal team are seeking more time to prepare their case. A decision on whether to change the date will be made on March 2.

In the meantime, Djouhri has been granted bail under very strict conditions, which include payment of a one million pound ($1.4 million) security, wearing an electronic tagging device and reporting to police daily.

Reporting by Michael Holden in London and Ingrid Melander in Paris; editing by Stephen Addison