Jail sought in French Polynesia presidential espionage case

7:35 am on 30 March 2015

The prosecution in a trial of French Polynesia's disgraced former president, Gaston Flosse, has requested a two-year jail sentence for espionage and abuse of public funds.

The trial dealt with an intelligence service that Flosse had at his disposal in the French Pacific territory until 2004, the year he lost power when the so-called Taui, or change, ended his long reign.

But Flosse's defence lawyer said the case should never have gone to trail and the eight accused who were summoned in Papeete this week should have been left alone.

Gaston Flosse

Former President Gaston Flosse. Photo: RNZ

After failing to get the trial called off, Francois Quinquis told local television that his client had done nothing wrong.

"The term espionage is totally inappropriate. You could maybe have a view about intelligence but again, political intelligence is, quite obviously, not forbidden," said Mr. Quinquis.

The trial had two aspects.

Firstly, whether Flosse broke the law by setting up an espionage service as such an institution is under French law within the domain of the state. And secondly, the court was to establish whether there was an abuse of public funds to run the spy agency.

The trial also wraps around an era during which Flosse reached the apex of his power, an era which Sabrina Birk, a former journalist and politician, has strong feelings about.

"This is what he did the worst to our people, was to intimidate us and to try and keep us silent so that we don't do our job as a journalist, that we don't find the truth, that we don't express our freedom," said Ms. Birk.

Sabrina Birk, former French Polynesian assembly member

Sabrina Birk. Photo: RNZI

A trigger for the case was the publisher of monthly magazine Tahiti Pacifique, Alex du Prel's reports about spying which prompted complaints to police from those believed to be targetted, such as the pro-independence politician Oscar Temaru and local lawyer Stanley Cross.

But suddenly, Mr du Prel explained, they dropped those people dropped their complaint: "Around 2007, 2008, Mr Flosse and Mr Temaru got together and formed a government, they kissed each other on the lips and Mr Temaru and Mr Cross took away their complaint."

But despite this, the police investigation was underway.

In court, the case was built on statements that police compiled over nearly ten years when questioning the 19 members of what was officially termed a 'documentation service'. "The funny thing about this trial," said Mr. du Prel, "is that all the proof that is being presented by the court are all the statements that the members of this supposedly illegal spy service are the best foundation to prove that there was such illegality."

The court heard that from the building of the now disbanded GIP militia, the agency placed under surveillance Flosse's political rivals, journalists and even Flosse's mistresses.

Alex du Prel, publisher of Tahiti Pacifique monthly magazine

Tahiti journalist Alex du Prel. Photo: RNZI

Among other things, Mr du Prel said, he found out that his fax machine had been tapped and that the agency even tapped top French officials.

"What can you do?," asked Mr du Prel. "They have the means, they control the Post Office and so on. And I testified under the French Renseignements Generaux, which is equal to the French Surveillance Service. And the director of this service who had just arrived, he told me, 'when I had my lines verified I realised there was a tap on my fax', by the..., done in the Post Office in Tahiti by the Tahitian Government."

The prosecution said the French constitution guarantees certain liberties to individuals and media people, which were breached.

Monthly magazine Tahiti Pacifique

Tahiti Pacifique. Photo: RNZI

It also said Flosse was not in charge of a state and therefore not allowed to have an intelligence service.

The snooping entailed for Mr du Prel, for example, that he was followed every time he went to town, presumably for the agents to see who he met or who his informants could be.

But Flosse's lawyer, Francois Quinquis, told local television that the agency was not interested in Mr du Prel.

"What is often interest to the court is the workings of the agency and it's not the intrusion into the private life of Mr du Prel," said Mr Quinquis.

As for the workings of the agency, it was set up in 1997 with the knowledge of France which is responsible for the rule of law in French Polynesia.

"The two guys that were, that set up the service and were running it, Yhuel and Micheloni, and these two men were in the, what they call the Service Action of the DGSE," said Mr du Prel. "That means they were in the dirty tricks department of the French Secret Service."

Alex du Prel said the two Mr Yhuel and Mr Micheloni, were part of the special French intelligence unit responsible for the 1985 bombing of the Greenpeace protest ship, Rainbow Warrior, in New Zealand.

French Polynesia's court building

French Polynesia's court building Photo: RNZI

Mr du Prel said when the taui (big change) happened, the agency got rid of its records. "They produced testimony and it took them three days to burn stuff in a drum, all the photos, documents and so on, all the equivalent was put in a van and there are testimonies to that effect," he said.

This also meant that for the expenditure of about $US10 million, the documentation service, as it was called, could not produce anything of its efforts.

As part of this long-running case, Flosse was convicted three years ago of obstructing the examination and he was fined $US16,000 for destroying the evidence.

The prosecution says Flosse, who lost the presidency and his seat in the French Senate last September after he was convicted of massive corruption for running a network of phantom jobs, should be jailed for two years.

A verdict in this latest court case is due on June 23 but even if convicted, 83-year-old Flosse is unlikely to be sent to prison because of his age.

It has been noted that the territorial government didn't join the case as a party to claim restitution of the money, which the prosecution says was spent illegally.

Mr du Prel said the trial has been littered with challenges and it may have repercussions for quite some time.

"This is a very complex case," he said. "And there are many errors of procedure in it that were brought up by the lawyers of Mr Flosse at the beginning. So he might be condemned in the first instance. Then you will go to the Appeal Court who might recognise all these many procedural errors."

Should Flosse get convicted, it won't have much impact because he is already banned from public office because of his other convictions.