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‘All citizens equal before the law’: Princess Cristina fraud trial starts

Spain's Princess Cristina and her husband went on trial Monday under intense global media scrutiny in a landmark corruption case that has outraged the country and sullied the monarchy's reputation.

'All citizens equal before the law': Princess Cristina fraud trial starts
The royal pair arrive at court. Photo: Gerard Julien / AFP

Cristina, a 50-year-old mother-of-four with a master's degree from New York University, is the first Spanish royal to face criminal charges since the monarchy was reinstated following the 1975 death of dictator General Francisco Franco.

The princess and her husband, former Olympic handball medallist Iñaki Urdangarin, arrived together at a makeshift courtroom in Palma on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca as photographers snapped pictures and a police helicopter flew overhead.

Following courtroom rules, they had to sit apart as judges read out the alleged crimes committed by the total of 18 suspects in the case, which alleges that Urdangarin embezzled public funds through a foundation he once chaired.

Cristina has been charged with tax evasion while her husband is accused of the more serious crimes of embezzlement, influence peddling, document falsification, money laundering, forgery, breach of official duty and tax fraud.

No 'privilege' for princess

Almost immediately after the trial opened, Cristina's lawyers called for the case against her to be thrown out.

Prosecutors have always refused to press charges against her, but under Spanish law, private entities can also file criminal complaints – and that is just what anti-graft campaigners “Manos Limpias”, or “Clean Hands” did.   

Cristina's lawyers cited Spanish jurisprudence which allows an accused to escape trial if the victim of a crime does not back the charges – and in this case the alleged victim is the state.

But Virginia Lopez Negrete, the lawyer representing “Manos Limpias”, rejected the argument.

“All citizens are equal before the law and as a result anachronistic doctrines cannot be applied” that would “privilege” the princess, she said.   

Journalists from around the world have flocked to cover the trial, which was moved from a courthouse to a public administration school on the outskirts of Palma to accomodate the large number of reporters and lawyers.

It comes as Spain seethes over repeated corruption scandals that have exposed politicians, trade unions, bankers and footballers, eroding Spaniards' faith in their institutions and elites after a major economic crisis and a government austerity drive.

“We have never had as much corruption in Spain's democratic history,” said 45-year-old unemployed masseur Francisco Solana, one of a handful of protesters who gathered outside the courtroom.

“No judge will dare send Princess Cristina to jail. I think justice is not equal for all, it favours the rich,” added Solana who was wrapped in the yellow, red and purple flag of Spain's 1931-1939 second republic.

The case is centred on business dealings by the Noos Institute, a charitable organisation based in Palma which Urdangarin founded and chaired from 2004 to 2006.

The 47-year-old and his former business partner Diego Torres are suspected of embezzling €6.2 million ($6.7 million) in public funds paid by two regional governments to the organisation to stage sporting and other types of events.

Urdangarin is accused of using his royal connections to secure inflated contracts without competing bids and siphoning off some of the money into Aizoon, a firm he jointly ran with his wife Cristina to fund a lavish lifestyle.


The couple on their wedding day in April 1997. Photo: AFP

The couple are suspected of using Aizoon for personal expenses including work on the couple's mansion in Barcelona, dance lessons and even Harry Potter books, which reduced the firm's taxable profits, according to court filings.   

If convicted Cristina – who has denied knowledge of her husband's activities – faces a jail term of up to eight years. Urdangarin faces more than 19 years in prison.

Did royal palace 'cooperate'?

The corruption scandal and health woes prompted Cristina's father Juan Carlos to abdicate in 2014 in favour of his son Felipe to try to revive the scandal-hit monarchy.

King Felipe VI swiftly ordered palace accounts to be subject to an external audit and promised an honest and transparent monarchy.

Torres, Urdangarin's former business partner, has insisted that Juan Carlos and his advisers knew and approved of his son-in-law's business dealings at the Noos Institute and has hundreds of emails that can prove it.

“The royal palace was informed, supervised, and at times even cooperated,” he said during an interview broadcast on private television La Sexta on Sunday.

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ROYALS

FOCUS: Can Spain’s King restore faith in the monarchy?

Families are frequently a source of embarrassment, but the recent troubles caused by Spanish King Felipe VI's relatives belong to an entirely different realm.

FOCUS: Can Spain's King restore faith in the monarchy?

From expedited Covid vaccinations to tax offences and shady financial dealings by family members, Felipe has found himself in a royal mess sabotaging his efforts to clean up the image of Spain’s scandal-tainted monarchy.

It has in some ways left him tilting at windmills. Earlier controversies led to him cutting off his own father’s allowance, among other steps, but now more may be on the way, as he seeks to balance
family concerns with understandable outrage in Spain.

Last week his father, former King Juan Carlos, announced he had settled a debt of nearly 4.4 million euros ($5.3 million) with the Spanish tax office due on the value of previously undeclared private jet flights paid by a foundation based in Liechtenstein.

It was the second such tax settlement in less than three months for Juan Carlos, who went into self-exile in the United Arab Emirates in August as questions mounted over the origins of his fortune.

The former king is the target of three separate probes into his financial dealings.

And on Wednesday King Felipe’s older sisters Elena and Cristina acknowledged that they were vaccinated for the coronavirus while visiting their father in Abu Dhabi, sidestepping the immunisation queue in Spain.

The king’s spokesman stressed his sisters, just like his father, were no longer officially part of the monarchy and he was therefore not responsible for their actions.

‘Protect monarchy’

“He takes it badly, logically…because like everyone else, he has a heart” but “his role is to protect the monarchy from the storm,” journalist Jose Apezarena, the author of several books on Felipe, told AFP.

“It is clear to him that if he has to choose between the family and the monarchy, he will choose the monarchy.”

After Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 against a backdrop of scandals over his finances and love life, Felipe VI ascended the throne with the goal of restoring the monarchy’s prestige.

He promptly ordered an audit of the royal household’s accounts and issued a “code of conduct” for its members.

The following year he stripped the title of duchess from his sister Cristina who was implicated along with her husband Inaki Urdangarin in a wide-ranging case of embezzlement of public funds.

The couple stood trial in 2017. While the court acquitted Cristina, her husband is serving a jail sentence of five years and 10 months.

Last year Felipe renounced any future personal inheritance he might receive from his father, and stripped him of his annual allowance of nearly 200,000 Euros, after new details of his allegedly shady dealings emerged.

The king could be forced to go even further, according to Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

“Felipe VI does not keep his family under control and their behaviour represents a huge reputation problem” for the monarchy, he said.

There will be further revelations regarding Juan Carlos’ questionable financial dealings in the coming years and Felipe will have “no alternative but to erect a clearer firewall”, such as asking the government to remove his title of king emeritus, he added.

PM under pressure

The royal scandals also put Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in an “uncomfortable situation”, said Simon.

Socialist ministers have in recent days repeatedly praised Felipe as “exemplary” even as they criticise his father’s behaviour, and the party backs the continuation of the monarchy.

But the scandals give fuel to the anti-monarchy arguments of far-left party Podemos, the junior partner in Sanchez’s minority coalition government.

Podemos, along with smaller Basque and Catalan separatist parties which help the government pass legislation in parliament, are calling for a serious debate over the future of the monarchy.

Sanchez in December referred vaguely to a “road map” to renew the Crown “in terms of transparency and exemplarity”.

If a debate over the monarchy’s future were to open it would lead to “the fracture of the majority supporting the government”, said Simon.

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