French minister's alleged impersonators on trial for fraud
A group of men accused of using Skype and a silicone mask to extract tens of millions of euros from the rich and famous by impersonating a top French politician go on trial in Paris Tuesday.
Victims of the fake Jean-Yves Le Drian -- now foreign minister but then in charge of defence -- included billionaire spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, who parted with 20 million euros ($22 million).
Starting in 2015, the "minister" made calls by telephone and video link to more than 150 targets -- of whom three were successfully duped -- often to seek funds for a "secret operation" with a promise of repayment by the French state.
The money was often said to be for ransom payments or anti-terror operations.
"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 over the weekend, adding he was "appalled" and "offended" by the alleged abuse of his name.
Two Franco-Israeli suspects, Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, are thought to be the masterminds of the group.
In 2015, a French court convicted Chikli in absentia to seven years in prison for similar scams in 2005 and 2006, in which he posed as the CEOs of different businesses.
On the run, he was arrested two years later with Lasarevitsch in Ukraine. On their phones, police found pictures of a silicone mask of Prince Albert II of Monaco, suggesting another hoax was in the planning stages.
A total of seven men go on trial Tuesday.
Six of the defendants, including Chikli and Lasarevitsch, are charged over both the Le Drian scam and the suspected plot to target Prince Albert, while the seventh is charged solely over the alleged Monaco plot.
- 'I have a gift' -
Prosecutors say the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, was conned by a Le Drian impersonator in 2016 and made five transfers for a total 20 million euros to Poland and China. Three of the payments were frozen, but 7.7 million euros disappeared.
A few months later, Turkish business magnate Inan Kirac was allegedly convinced to wire more than $47 million (42 million euros) for what he thought was ransom money for two journalists held hostage in Syria.
Others targeted, albeit unsuccessfully, included Gabon's President Ali Bongo, French AIDS charity Sidaction, the CEO of the Lafarge cement company and the archbishop of Paris.
The phoney Le Drian even tried to convince the Tunisian government to buy four Airbus Tigre attack helicopters for 19 million euros ($21 million).
Chikli and Lasarevitsch deny the charges.
But in an interview with French television in 2010 over previous scams, Chikli said he was intrigued by the "game" of scamming.
"You've either got the gift or you haven't, it's like famous actors. When it comes to me, you can say that I have a gift," he said.
His story inspired a 2015 film, "Je Compte Sur Vous" (I'm Counting on You), with French actor Vincent Elbaz in the starring role.
© 2020 AFP