The extraordinary story of two French pilots who fled the Dominican Republic after being convicted of cocaine trafficking turned political on Tuesday when former president Nicolas Sarkozy lashed out at authorities for having put him under investigation in connection with "Air Cocaine".
"What do people think? That I was in Punta Cana sitting on 700kg of cocaine?" Sarkozy said in an angry interview with Le Parisien newspaper.
On March 19th, 2013, four French men were arrested at Punta Cana airport in the Dominican Republic when their Falcon 50 jet was found to contain 680kg (1,500lbs) of cocaine. All four were sentenced to 20 years in prison, but were placed under house arrest pending an appeal.
The same four men had made two previous, suspicious flights on the same jet. In December 2012, the Falcon 50 landed at La Môle-Saint- Tropez airport after flying from the Caribbean island. Ten extremely heavy suitcases were unloaded. A customs officer – who was later charged with corruption – recorded the contents as clothing. Two weeks before they were arrested, the men flew in the same aircraft from Quito, Equador, to Paris, but did not unload cargo.
Christine Saunier-Ruellan, the investigating magistrate assigned to the case in Marseille, noticed that the Falcon 50 had been booked to fly Sarkozy to Bordeaux two days after it was seized in the Dominican Republic. (He had been summoned by a Bordeaux judge regarding his financial dealings with Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman.)
Saunier-Ruellan asked a colleague in Paris, Judge Serge Tournaire, who was investigating Sarkozy for alleged Libyan financing of his 2007 election campaign, for Sarkozy’s phone records from March 2013 until March 2014. She compared all the numbers he called with the phone records of the four men arrested in Punta Cana, but found no overlap. She also asked for the geographic co-ordinates of his mobile in March-April 2013, apparently to determine whether he had travelled to the Caribbean.
"I want to know in the name of what a magistrate could take such steps, for the sole reason that I had travelled with the same airline," the former president told Le Parisien. "I want to know if any other clients were tracked."
Sarkozy accused France’s socialist government of harassing him. “Do you believe one tracks the leader of the opposition, that one listens to his conversations and those of his entourage without informing the minister of justice? . . . And if the minister of justice is informed, didn’t she talk to the president of the republic?”
In response to a deputy from Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party in the National Assembly yesterday, prime minister Manuel Valls denied the justice minister had been informed of the measures affecting Sarkozy.
Sarkozy was already known to have been under investigation in another aspect of the “Air Cocaine” scandal.
Between December 2012 and February 2013, his wealthy friend Stéphane Courbit rented jets to take Sarkozy to Qatar, Peterboro in the US, and Abu Dhabi, at a cost of €301,000. Courbit claimed he had dispatched Sarkozy to seek investors for a fund called “Columbia”.
During the third weekend of October, the convicted pilots,
(56), both former navy men, escaped from the Dominican Republic with the help of a high-ranking official in the extreme right-wing National Front (FN). They left the two Frenchmen who had been convicted with them,
, who claimed to be a passenger and businessman on the Falcon 50, behind in the Dominican Republic. Fauret and Odos held a press conference in Paris on October 27th to proclaim their innocence and malign the Dominican justice system. On November 2nd, they were arrested at their homes in Lyon and Grenoble, respectively. Both spent Monday night in prison, pending questioning by Judge Saunier-Ruellan.
Details of the pilots’ escape emerged in the meantime. They were picked up by a high-speed boat in Santo Domingo and taken to the French West Indies.
Also on board were the FN MEP Aymeric Chauprade and Pierre Malinowski, a former legionnaire and the parliamentary assistant to Chauprade and Jean-Marie Le Pen.
In the ensuing crisis in Franco-Dominican relations, Dominican authorities have demanded the return of the escaped pilots, but French government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll said France does not extradite French citizens from French territory.
This is not the first time that Sarkozy's name has been associated with cocaine and a diplomatic incident. In 2008, the Colombian government protested when Sarkozy's wife, Carla Bruni, sang: "You're my drug, More deadly than Afghan heroin, More dangerous than Colombian white."