'Cover-up to save royal who smuggled cocaine'

A SAUDI prince accused of using his diplomatic immunity to smuggle two tonnes of cocaine worth over £15.5 million into France is due to go on trial in his absence in Paris today, amid allegations that French authorities deliberately bungled the investigation to avoid offending the rulers of the wealthy and powerful Arab kingdom.

Prince Nayef Bin Fawaz al-Shaalan, 53, a grandson of Saudi Arabia's founding monarch, Abdulaziz, is one of ten people facing charges relating to a shipment that allegedly arrived on his Bermudas-registered private Boeing 727 at a Paris airport in 1999.

None of the accused, who include three Colombian drug-traffickers already convicted over the affair in the United States, will be present to answer charges in the court in the Paris suburb of Bobigny.

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According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the prince is alleged to have made contacts with Colombia's Medellin cartel via Doris Mangeri Salazar, a Florida estate agent he met while studying at the University of Miami in the early 1980s and who introduced him to smugglers in 1998.

Ms Salazar was arrested in 2002 by DEA agents who found her hiding in a bedroom cupboard in her Miami home, which contained a painting by the artist Goya thought to be worth around 560,000 and several sculptures suspected to be part-payment in the alleged deal. She was later sentenced to 24 years for her role in the operation.

According to a book entitled Le Coke Saudienne: au coeur d'une affaire d'tat (Saudi Coke: At the Heart of an Affair of State), by Fabrice Monti, a former official at the French interior ministry, Prince Nayef, reportedly a strict Muslim who does not drink or smoke, allegedly turned to coke-smuggling to provide secret funding for Wahabi Muslim fundamentalist militants.

According to the prosecution, on 16 May, 1999, he arranged for the cocaine to be packed in briefcases and flown with him from Caracas, Venezuela, to Le Bourget airport outside Paris via Riyadh aboard a jet which was frequently used for official Saudi government missions and belonged to Skyways International, a company owned by the Saudi royal family. There were 13 other passengers aboard, including his twin brother, Prince Saud.

Mr Monti, who was attached to the national drug police, described the scene at Le Bourget, where the cocaine-filled cases were loaded into the rented vans, allegedly under the supervision of Prince Nayef and his bodyguards. As he had diplomatic status, customs officers did not inspect the baggage and the Saudi convoy left the airport unhindered.

On the way to Paris, the two vans containing the cocaine peeled off from the convoy and made for a rented house in the Paris suburb of Noisy-le-Sec, where the cargo was to be hidden for a few days before being sold in France and other European countries. The plan backfired when French police received a tip-off which led them to the house.

French investigators were aided by their American counterparts, who used evidence obtained from plea bargains with Medellin cartel members facing other drug charges.

The Saudi government allegedly reacted by pressuring Paris to drop the investigation, by threatening to pull the plug on a 7 billion contract with the French multinational, Thales, to build a security system to protect the kingdom.

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In his book, Mr Monti says the French investigation promptly lost steam while the prince accompanied King Fahd on a trip to Europe in 2002 without being hindered by the French authorities.

In 2005, a Miami court handed down several convictions in the affair, using evidence supplied by the three Colombians. The same evidence forms the basis of the French case.

Prince Nayef's lawyer, Jacques Verges, is expected to argue that his client is the victim of a conspiracy hatched in the US.

The hearing is expected to be brief, with a verdict scheduled for a future date.


INFORMERS told how they met the prince in Marbella, Spain, and said they had received invitations to Saudi Arabia where they held a secret meeting to conclude the deal. A Swiss banker was to launder the funds, transferring them to La Banque Kanz, opened in Geneva by the prince - a bank where he is the sole client.

The book recounts that the relationship between American and French police soured after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

According to Mr Monti, French police had hoped to lure the prince to Europe and arrest him and were horrified when the DEA and a Miami federal prosecutor publicly announced his indictment.

The prince, who has refused to leave Saudi Arabia, denies any wrong doing, saying says he is the victim of "an American plot".

According to Le Monde, the affair is being watched closely by French diplomats, who fear it could hit relations with Saudi Arabia.

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