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French divorce holds key to Karachi affair

Nicolas Sarkozy

Were senior Pakistani politicians and military officials lured by huge financial kickbacks into purchasing French submarines in 1994? And were they instrumental in the murder of 11 French submarine workers when the full extent of the bribe money failed to materialise? An acrimonious divorce case may hold the key to the notorious "Karachi Affair".

It has been reported that Nicola Johnson, 50, who is estranged from her Franco-Lebanese husband, Ziad Takieddine, is pursuing him through the French courts for a €25 million share of his assets which her lawyer estimates to be in the region of €104 million. Takieddine, however, has declared his earnings are altogether more modest: approximately an annual €200,000.

The Daily Telegraph reports that despite making use of a clutch of "such opulent properties whose value in France alone is estimated to be €40 million, it is alleged that (Takieddine) paid no income or wealth tax in the country last year." Miss Johnson is seeking to overturn a 2009 court ruling which provides her with just €12,000 a year in alimony. Earlier this month, the newspaper continues, a French judge ordered all assets that the estranged couple held "in common "to be frozen because of the risk of him selling them off before an appeal ruling on 15 September." These assets reportedly include a house in London's upmarket Holland Park, which is estimated to be worth more than £17 million, as well as properties in the south of France, the couples private jet and a "palatial" flat in Paris's chic Avenue Georges-Mandel worth an estimate €12 million, the "owner" of which is listed as a Alain F, whose unlikely occupation is that of Takieddine's butler. On the face of it, the case appears to be yet another squalid marital quarrel over money.

But, by some reports, in the process French judges also hope to uncover Takieddine's alleged role in the "Karachi affair", which began in 1994 when France sold three Agosta 90 submarines to Pakistan for an estimated $950m. To secure the contract, it has been alleged that large kickbacks (by some reports €83 million) were paid to Pakistani politicians and military officials.

The crucial issue, however, is whether an estimated €2m of the kickbacks were then funnelled back to France to illegally fund the presidential campaign of Edouard Balladur, who was then France's Prime Minister. Nicolas Sarkozy, the current French President, was Balladur's budget minister, treasurer and campaign spokesman. As budget minster, he would reportedly have signed off on certain aspects of the submarine deal. Both men have vehemently denied allegations of involvement, with Sarkozy having described the charges as "grotesque, ridiculous and a fable".

It has been alleged that when Balladur lost the presidential election to Jacques Chirac, he punished Balladur by stopping the remaining payments to senior Pakistani officials. In a report last November, The Guardian newspaper wrote: "Chirac immediately set about dismantling the network of commissions and launched several secret inquiries into Balladur's possible use of kickbacks. He ordered that all the bribes to Pakistan must stop".

In May 2002, a bus carrying staff to the Karachi site where the submarine construction was being finalised, was bombed. Eleven French submarine engineers and four Pakistani dock workers were killed in the attack. The Pakistanis promptly pinned the attack on al-Qaeda terrorists, as did the French government. But a separate investigation in France is now underway into the actual causes of the bombing. In their November report, The Guardian commented: "the new anti-terrorist judge investigating the bombing, Marc Trévedic, has suggested a different theory: that the attack was likely to have been a retribution hit because France had stopped the commission payments". Families of the victims of the Karachi attacks have called for Sarkozy to testify at the inquiry. Significantly, also last November, Chirac's former defence minister, Charles Millon, told the investigation that kickbacks on the arms deals existed, saying: "For the Pakistani contract, looking at the secret service reports and analyses carried out by the (defence) ministry services, one has the absolute conviction that there were kickbacks."

Takieddine has flatly denied having any role in acting as an intermediary for siphoning off funds to fund the Balladur campaign. However, The Daily Telegraph reports that the judge hearing Miss Johnson's appeal, is "expected to quiz Miss Johnson on her husband's professional movements and way of life at the time of the submarine deal. He was also expected to ask about her knowledge of where he placed his fortune". Her answers may prove embarrassing not only to her estranged husband but to the French President.

The Takieddine divorce coming hot on the heels of the investigation as to who was actually responsible for the Karachi bombings is another unwelcome distraction for Sarkozy as Takieddine is reportedly a very close friend of many of the President's nearest allies. Questioned about the proceedings, Takieddine said he had "no comment", declaring: "Let's wait for justice to run its course and it will all fizzle out"

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