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Countdown begins, as Spanish king’s brother-in-law prepares for jail time

After a year spent living in Switzerland, the ‘infanta’ Cristina’s husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, is facing a three year prison sentence for his role in the Noós corruption scandal

Iñaki Urdangarin and the ‘infanta’ Cristina, in Vitoria last Christmas.
Iñaki Urdangarin and the ‘infanta’ Cristina, in Vitoria last Christmas. GETTY

It all started with a handball game at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. That was where the infanta Cristina, the daughter of then-King Juan Carlos, laid eyes on Iñaki Urdangarin, one of the players on the Spanish national team. Hours later, at a party thrown by the Spanish Olympic Committee, she managed to get some friends in common to introduce them. For her, it was love at first sight. He took a bit longer to fall for her. He had a girlfriend at the time, and some doubts, but his family helped convince him of the advantages of a relationship with the daughter of the king of Spain.

Nothing has been normal in the Urdangarin-Borbón family for seven years now, after the so-called Nóos case blew up

It was at another handball game, played on February 28 in Switzerland, when the couple were most recently seen in public. Acting with complete normality, they greeted the players and posed for pictures. But nothing has been normal in the Urdangarin-Borbón family for seven years now. That was when the so-called Nóos case blew up, a corruption scandal that rocked the lives of the then-Duke and Duchess of Palma and shook the very foundations of the Spanish royal family.

Urdangarin was found guilty of fraud, influence peddling and tax crimes in a case that also ensnared his wife, the younger of current Spanish King Felipe VI’s two sisters. The corruption scandal revolved around the Nóos Institute, a non-profit foundation headed by Urdangarin and founded by his business partner Diego Torres, and which obtained lucrative no-bid contracts from regional governments. Torres was sentenced to eight years and six months in prison, and given a €1,723,843.10 fine. Cristina de Borbón was cleared of the criminal charges against her, but was forced to pay a fine of €265,088 for her role in the scheme. The royal was never charged by either public prosecutors or tax authorities, but rather on the basis of a private prosecution.

Infanta Elena, with her sister Cristina and Urdangarin.
Infanta Elena, with her sister Cristina and Urdangarin.

A year after the High Court in Palma de Mallorca handed down a six year, three month prison sentence for Urdangarin, the final phase of the judicial process is approaching. The countdown has begun, and on March 21, Urdangarin will arrive in Palma de Mallorca to hear the final decision of the Supreme Court after hearing the arguments of the public prosecutor and lawyers for the defense. All the evidence suggests that the husband of Cristina de Borbón will end up behind bars.

In the last year of waiting, the infanta and her family have not been seen much in Spain. They were in Vitoria to see Urdangarin’s family, with whom they spent Christmas, and they have visited Barcelona – Cristina for meetings with La Caixa savings bank, where she continues to work, and Iñaki Urdangarin to meet with his lawyer. He has not worked for years now, not since he lost his job at Telefónica. The infanta is now propping up the family economically, with the help of her parents.

They have also traveled to Spain on occasion to visit the estate of the Borbón-Dos Sicilias, a branch of the Spanish royal family, with whom they are united not just by family ties, but also a great friendship.

Divisions in the family persist, and the Urdangarin-Borbón clan were excluded from the 80th birthday celebrations of King Juan Carlos

But the Urdangarin-Borbón clan were excluded from the 80th birthday celebrations of King Juan Carlos, and just to dispel any doubts, the Royal Household released a photo of the party that proved that the couple had not been present. At the time, Cristina, Urdangarin and their children – Juan, Pablo, Miguel and Irene – were on a trip to Rome. Spotted by tourists, the couple appeared in a number of photos posted on social networks. But the aim was not to go unnoticed – quite the opposite.

On their trip they made a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica, in the Vatican, to attend a Mass officiated by Pope Francisco. Smartly dressed for the occasion, they enjoyed a privileged position in the church, as if attending an official act. But the Royal Household had nothing to do with the treatment they received at the Mass. In fact, the Vatican later reported that there were no special privileges for the couple, nor a private meeting with the pontiff. Cristina de Borbón and her loved ones have taken refuge in religion, at a time when the court case that has had an indelible effect on their lives is approaching its conclusion.

For months now there has been talk about the state of health of the king’s younger sister. Sources consulted from her inner circle say that she has been left “destroyed,” while others talk about depression. The infanta, 52, has a strong character and convictions, and since the outset of the crisis has closed ranks around her husband, with an attitude that borders stubbornness. She has never admitted that her husband made a mistake with his business dealings with Diego Torres, thus ignoring all the advice that her family has given her. This also saw her cut off all links with advisors at La Zarzulea royal palace. She clashed with her brother, King Felipe VI, who stripped her of her title as the duchess of Palma, and she refuses to renounce her dynastic rights.

Sources consulted say they find it very hard to believe that there is no kind of contact with King Felipe

But the state of mind of the infanta is of great concern to her family, prompting King Juan Carlos to accompany his wife, Sofía, to Geneva for the 50th birthday of Iñaki Undagarin – the first trip of this kind that has come to light.

Since the Nóos scandal came to light, the royal family has been engaged in a high-wire act to balance out the obligations of the crown with their feelings. Sofía and her other daughter, Elena, have never hidden their support for Cristina. King Juan Carlos, meanwhile, has begun to rebuild his relationship with his daughter bit by bit after keeping his distance.

But it is around Felipe VI that the major firewalls have been put in place. At La Zarzuela palace they are working to ensure that there can be no doubts about any connections between the former duchess of Palma and the current king of Spain. But what happens behind closed doors is a completely separate issue. All sources with knowledge of the situation who have been consulted say they find it very hard to believe that there is no kind of contact, especially given that the health of Cristina has been reportedly affected by the process.

When, as is expected, Urdangarin enters prison for what is likely to be a three-year jail term, the infanta and her children will remain in Geneva. Their children have made clear that they want to stay where they are and finish their studies. A return to Spain would be very difficult for all concerned, given the hostility that their presence generates among the public. Previous plans to move to Portugal have been put on hold for now. The Aga Khan, who has a foundation in Lisbon, was counting on the presence there of the daughter of his old friend King Juan Carlos from last summer onward. A house and a job were awaiting her. But in the end it will be from Geneva that the wife of Urdangarin will have to travel to visit him in jail.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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