Rajoy claims ignorance of kickbacks while PP chief

Spanish President Mariano Rajoy testifying in Gürtel corruption case. Photo: EFE via Público
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• President says he was ‘unaware’ of corruption while head of party in 2003-04
• Opposition reaction, from ‘not very credible’ to ‘liar’ and calls for resignation

In first-ever testimony in a criminal trial by a sitting Spanish prime minister, President Mariano Rajoy Wednesday claimed he knew nothing about financial kickbacks and illegal financing of his own conservative governing Partido Popular (PP) that allegedly took place while he served as secretary-general of the party from 2003-2004.

Testifying as a witness in the high-profile Gürtel corruption case, which is alleged to involve kickbacks to PP officials and government officials totaling more than 350 million euros over a period of several years that included Rajoy’s two-year tenure as party chief, the Spanish resident told a panel of judges under questioning by prosecutors that his duties at the time were exclusively political. As a result, he said, he paid no attention to financial matters, which he said were entirely under the jurisdiction of then-PP Treasurer José Luis Bárcenas, who is one of the principal defendants in the Gürtel trial.

In an unusual move, the court allowed Rajoy to be seated and filmed giving testimony on a dais next to the judges, rather than from the courtroom area where witnesses and defendants customarily give their testimony, which Rajoy’s lawyers had said would have unfairly associated him in the public’s mind with the accused in the trial. During Rajoy’s testimony, the principal judge in the case interrupted questioning by prosecuting attorneys on 14 occasions, disallowing questions that the judge ruled as not pertinent to the line of inquiry or contained “value judgements” that made them, in effect, loaded questions.

Sticking throughout to his claims that he knew nothing of financial matters that may have involved illegal payments to PP officials or illegal financing of the party, Rajoy batted back several questions from prosecutors with the irony and wit for which he is well-known during parliamentary debate in Spain’s Congress of Deputies.

Spanish opposition parties, however, were not convinced by Rajoy’s performance. Pedro Sánchez, secretary general of Spain’s Socialist party (PSOE), said Rajoy’s having to give testimony in a corruption case at all amounted to a “black day” for democracy in Spain and called on the president to resign from office. Also calling for Rajoy’s resignation, Pablo Iglesias, secretary general of three-year-old anti-austerity party Podemos (We Can), said Rajoy’s tone was “impertinent” and “cocky” and said the Spanish president was either “lying to protect the PP or else is tremendously negligent”.

Even the PP’s ally in Congress, centre-right party Ciudadanos, was unimpressed with Rajoy’s testimony, with party secretary general José Manuel Villegas calling Rajoy’s claims of ignorance “not very credible” and saying that it is a “deplorable” state of affairs for the head of government in Spain to be called to testify in a case involving corruption in his own party.

► Read More in Spanish at El País, Público and El Mundo …

► Read More in English at The Guardian, The Irish Times and El País …

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