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Former Spanish PM Aznar denies party slush fund despite court ruling

The ex-Popular Party politician, in power between 1996 and 2004, was involved in tense exchanges on Tuesday morning, as he was quizzed during a congressional commission

José Maria Aznar in Congress on Tuesday.
José Maria Aznar in Congress on Tuesday. EL PAÍS

Former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar was grilled in a congressional commission this morning over the illegal financing of the conservative Popular Party (PP) while he was at its helm. The ex-politician, who was the head of the government from 1996 to 2004, responded to the questions by denying any wrongdoing, attacking his questioners and changing the subject of the conversation to other issues. A particularly tense moment came when he accused the leader of left-wing party Unidos Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, of being “a danger to democracy.”

During his questioning on Tuesday morning, Aznar denied that there was a slush fund operating in the PP, despite the fact that judges found “solid” evidence of the existence of the secret ledgers in a recent ruling that was part of the far-reaching probe into the so-called “Gürtel” kickbacks-for-contracts scandal. Although a separate trial over the slush fund is pending, the court found evidence that the PP was a beneficiary of a “system of institutional corruption.” This set into motion the vote of no confidence that saw Aznar’s successor, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, ousted from power to make way for Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE).

Gabriel Rufián of the Catalan Republican Left explored issues other than corruption, such as the involvement of Spain in the 2003 Iraq War

The Catalan independence drive, the bombs sold by Spain to Saudi Arabia, the ayatollahs of Iran… All of these subjects were cited by the former prime minister in response to questioning from politicians. His interrogators, such as Gabriel Rufián of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), also took advantage of Aznar’s presence to bring up issues such as the Spain’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War.

Rufián called Aznar a “warlord,” asking: “Do you have anything to say to the parents of José Couso?” in reference to a Spanish TV cameraman killed while covering the conflict. “Do you have any shame?” Aznar responded saying: “In this life you can make mistakes that lead to shame, but for you to demand explanations coming from a party that wants to break the constitutional order in Spain and is behind a coup…” The former prime minister was referring to the ongoing independence drive in Catalonia, which has seen a number of Catalan politicians placed in pre-trial custody for their role in a unilateral declaration of independence for the northeastern Spanish region.

Rufián also held up a picture of one of Aznar’s cabinets, in which many of the ministers present are currently accused of, or have already been convicted of, corruption. “This is your legacy,” he told the former PM. “You stand in solidarity with your corrupt prisoners; I stand in solidarity with my democratic prisoners.” In response, Aznar argued that the “regime of [Spain’s] Transition [to democracy] that you want to destroy is the one that allows you to be here and to vote in elections.”

Aznar denied knowing or having hired Francisco Correa, the businessman sentenced to 51 years in jail as the head of the Gürtel network

Aznar denied knowing or having hired Francisco Correa, the businessman sentenced to 51 years in jail as the head of the Gürtel network (Correa, meaning belt, translates as “Gürtel” in German, and was the codename for the police investigation.) This is despite the fact that Correa was invited to the wedding of Aznar’s daughter. “There were more criminals per square meter [at that wedding] than in a Coppola film,” said the PSOE’s Rafael Simancas. “How do you explain that the only people at that wedding who didn’t end up in court were the waiters?” jibed Gabriel Rufián.

“At no time during the probe have I ever been accused, nor have I ever been called to appear as a witness,” Aznar argued, regarding the PP corruption cases. “My political responsibilities as prime minister completely removed me […] from the economic management of the Popular Party. […] I don’t have to apologize for anything.”

When it came Pablo Iglesias’ turn to question Aznar, tensions rose to such an extent that the chairman of the commission had to call the former prime minister to order after he said that the Podemos chief was “a danger to democracy.” Iglesias immediately managed to aggravate Aznar by reminding him ahead of nearly every question that he had the “obligation to tell the truth.”

Iglesias said that Aznar’s responses were “pathetic,” accusing him of being the “chief perpetrator of corruption in the PP,” and stated that he would work to see that Spaniards never again had to be “ashamed” of such a leader. “I couldn’t care less what you are ashamed about,” responded Aznar. “Your populism does not interest me.” He added: “There is a party [Podemos] that wants to destroy the 1978 regime and system, and which uses the governments of Venezuela or Iran as a reference point. You couldn’t have worse reference points.”

When it came Pablo Iglesias’s turn to question Aznar, tensions rose to such an extent that the chairman of the commission had to call the former prime minister to order

Aznar was also questioned about the infamous “Bárcenas papers,” ledgers that supposedly detail payments made from the PP’s slush fund to a number of politicians – including Mariano Rajoy, who appeared as “M. Rajoy” on the ledgers. “Are you the ‘JM’ on the Bárcenas papers, just like Mariano Rajoy was ‘M. Rajoy?” asked Simancas. “As for the Bárcenas papers, let Bárcenas answer. A PP slush fund does not exist,” Aznar responded.

He added that the Bárcenas papers “lack any foundation,” despite the fact that a number of recipients of the cash, such as Senate Speaker Pío García Escudero, have admitted that they are accurate. The ledgers kept by Bárcenas, who has been sentenced to 33 years in jail, began in 1990, when Aznar was appointed president of the PP.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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