Great Britain

France’s fake foreign minister trial begins

A group of men accused of scamming millions of euros from celebrities by impersonating a leading French minister are going on trial in Paris today.

In an alleged con dating back to 2015, the imposters are said to have used Skype and silicone masks to trick high-profile figures into believing they were talking to France’s then-defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, now foreign minister.

According to The Guardian, the men allegedly told targets that they were seeking funds for a “secret operation”, such as ransom payments or anti-terror operations, that would be repaid by the French state.

Who is on trial?

Two Franco-Israeli suspects, Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, and five alleged accomplices go on trial today.

Chikli has been in custody since 2017, after being convicted two years earlier by a French court over similar scams dating back to 2005 and 2006, says France 24.

He had been sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison, fined €1m (£850,000) and ordered to pay €5.5m (£4.7m) in damages and interest to his victims, The Times of Israel reports.

That scheme, of which he was the alleged mastermind, saw “some of France’s top companies get embarrassingly fleeced”, according to the Jerusalem-based newspaper, which says Chikli would “contact banks and firms posing as either their CEO or a secret service agent and instruct them to hand over large sums, often in the guise of an operation against money laundering”.

Chikli fled to Israel in 2009, but was finally arrested along with Lasarevitch during a trip to Ukraine eight years later, and then extradited to France.

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What are the latest accusations?

Chikli and Lasarevitch are alleged to have overseen a plot that saw victims including the Aga Khan handing over money that they believed had been requested by Le Drian.

French prosecutors say that in 2016, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims was tricked into making five transfers totalling €20m (£17m) to Poland and China. Three of the payments were frozen, but a total of €7.7m  (£6.5m) disappeared.

“A few months later, the Turkish business magnate Inan Kirac was allegedly convinced to wire more than $47m (£40m) for what he thought was ransom money for two journalists held hostage in Syria,” The Guardian reports. 

“Others targeted, unsuccessfully, included Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo, the French Aids charity Sidaction, the CEO of the Lafarge cement company and the archbishop of Paris,” the newspaper adds. 

The imposters even allegedly attempted to convince the Tunisian government to buy four Airbus Tigre attack helicopters from France for €19m (£16m).

After being arrested in 2017, Chikli and Lasarevitsch - who deny the charges - were found to have been researching the purchase of silicone masks of other well-known figures including Prince Albert of Monaco, whom police believe they intended to impersonate next, according to The Irish Times.

Six of the men now on trial are charged over both the Le Drian scam and the suspected plot to impersonate Prince Albert, while the seventh is charged solely over the latter.

“I hope that justice will take its course and ensure that these crooks are punished as they should be,” the real Le Drian told French media this week, adding that he was “appalled” and “offended” by their alleged crimes.

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