PARIS (AFP) — A president's son, a thriller writer and a former interior minister were among members of the French elite who went on trial Monday for illegal arms sales to Africa in a high-profile case dubbed "Angolagate."
But a lawyer representing the Luanda government said he would ask the court to throw out the case by invoking French confidentiality laws protecting military secrets of foreign countries.
Angola is opposed to "public discussion of information in a foreign court" that concerns its state interests and national security, said lawyer Francis Teitgen.
Dubbed "Angolagate," the trial on the arms-to-Angola scandal could shine a spotlight on alleged high-level French involvement in weapons deliveries, in violation of a UN arms embargo.
The trial centres on 790 million dollars worth of arms bought in eastern Europe from 1993 to 1998, at the height of the war pitting Luanda against Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels.
Judges accuse Angolan President Eduardo Dos Santos of turning to two businessmen for military supplies after France refused to sell him a shipment of tanks in violation of a UN arms embargo.
In all, 42 defendants went on trial but much attention will focus on French businessman Pierre Falcone and Israeli-Russian billionaire Arcady Gaydamak who shepherded the arms deals.
Both face 10 years in jail for influence-peddling and illegal arms sales. Falcone turned up for the opening of the trial but Gaydamak was tried in absentia and believed to be in hiding in Israel.
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, a former adviser on African affairs at the Elysee presidential palace, is accused of "complicity in illegal trade and embezzlement" and taking bribes worth 2.6 million dollars.
Former interior minister Charles Pasqua and his right-hand man Jean-Charles Marchiani -- currently in a French prison serving a sentence he received for corruption in a separate case -- also risk 10 years for influence peddling on behalf of the Angolan authorities.
Pasqua on Monday again denied any wrongdoing and suggested the charges were politically motivated.
"Everything has been done to implicate me in an affair that I had nothing to do with," Pasqua told Europe 1 radio.
The Angolagate case long poisoned relations between Paris and Luanda and the trial comes at an awkward time for France, which is keen to strengthen ties with one of Africa's leading oil producers.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy travelled to Angola in May to discuss business opportunities -- the country is a major oil producer -- and also sought to soothe relations between the two countries over the trial.
In its request to the Paris court, the Luanda government argued that Falcone acted as a lawful representative of the government and that Angola had a "fundamental right" to defend itself by seeking arms.
A leading oil producer in Africa, Angola is struggling to rebuild following a devastating 27-year war that ended in 2002 after claiming the lives of half a million people.
Prosecutors allege that tanks, shells, landmines, helicopters and even six warships were shipped to Angola over five years, allowing Dos Santos to build up his forces in the war against US-backed Savimbi.
Angola's payments were channeled through firms in Paris, Geneva and Tel Aviv to shell companies in Jersey, the Virgin Islands or Monaco, with suitcases of cash used to pay off middlemen, prosecutors say.
Other high-profile defendants include the French thriller writer Paul-Loup Sulitzer and Mitterrand's one-time advisor Jacques Attali, who risk five years for selling Angola access to their political and media contacts.
Although no Angolans are charged in the French case, prosecutors allege that 30 officials including Dos Santos received tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks.
Hearings were scheduled to continue until March.
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