Sport

Jury selection begins in FIFA corruption trial

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

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NEW YORK, United States (AFP) — Jury selection began yesterday in the FIFA bribery trial of three South American ex-officials, two and a half years after US prosecutors unveiled the largest graft scandal in the history of world football.

Forty-two officials and marketing executives, and three companies were indicted in an exhaustive 236-page complaint detailing 92 separate crimes and 15 corruption schemes to the tune of $200 million.

US prosecutors announced the indictments on May 27, 2015, lifting the lid on a quarter of a century of endemic corruption in the heart of FIFA, soccer's governing body.

Yet as jury selection got underway at a federal court in Brooklyn, only three were going on trial — three fabulously wealthy and once powerful soccer officials from South America.

They are charged with racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy.

The most high-profile is Jose Maria Marin, 85, former president of Brazil's Football Confederation — the sport's organising body in one of the premier football-playing nations in the world.

Since his arrest at dawn by Swiss police in a five-star Zurich hotel and extradition, he has been out on bail, living in luxury at Trump Tower, the Fifth Avenue skyscraper best known for housing the penthouse and company headquarters of the US president.

“USA help us to arrest the corrupt Brazilians of our soccer administration. Jail on them,” read a banner held up by two protesters outside the court yesterday.

Also in the dock is former FIFA vice president Juan Angel Napout, 59, and Manuel Burga, who led football in Peru until 2014 and once served as a FIFA development committee member.

If convicted by the jury, they will be sentenced by Judge Pamela Chen. The most serious counts each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

The three defendants arrived separately and wordlessly, dressed in suits and accompanied by lawyers on the walk into the Brooklyn court house on an overcast yesterday.

Napout's lawyer, Silvia Pinera, said, “We are very optimistic and very pleased that Juan is going to have his day in court after two years of waiting”.

Twenty-four others have already pleaded guilty. The rest remain in their own countries, fighting extradition or similar charges at home.

The hugely complicated trial, expected to last weeks if not months, will see prosecutors expected to present 350,000 pages of evidence and dozens of witnesses.

Opening statements are expected to start November 13.

But first jury selection will take place from a pool of around 200 potential jurors, who have been kept in semi-secluded anonymity following documented attempts at intimidation, an AFP reporter said.

The trial is being held in a ceremonial courtroom closed to the press, with media admitted only into overflow rooms.

“Two generations of soccer officials,” then attorney general Loretta Lynch said in May 2015, “used their positions of trust within their respective organisations to solicit bribes from sports marketers in exchange for the commercial rights to their soccer tournaments. They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament.”

Tens of millions of dollars were hidden in offshore accounts in Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, US officials said.

Chen last month sentenced the first two of those who have pleaded guilty, jailing Guatemalan ex-soccer official Hector Trujillo to eight months and British-Greek accountant Costas Takkas to 15 months.

The other 22 await sentencing, led by Jeffrey Webb, of the Cayman Islands, who admitted to receiving more than $6 million in bribes and whose millionaire lifestyle while under house arrest — quaffing champagne, gambling and partying — has infuriated FIFA's lawyers.

While the US investigation did not indict ex-FIFA president Sepp Blatter, he was thrown out of the sport in 2015 after FIFA's ethics committee found him guilty of accepting an improper two-million-Swiss-franc ($2.1 million) payment from then-UEFA chief Michel Platini.

Blatter was banned from football for six years, and Platini, his former heir apparent, for four years.

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