Ex-Elf chief questioned by Togo judge over fraud probe
LOME (AFP) - The former head of French oil giant Elf, Loik Le Floch-Prigent, faced questioning from a Togolese judge for some three hours Monday after being extradited from Ivory Coast in a fraud probe.
Le Floch-Prigent made no comment as he quickly entered and exited a judge's chambers for the closed-door procedure at the tribunal in the capital Lome, escorted by three gendarmes.
He was not handcuffed and his Togolese lawyer, Rustico Lawson-Bankou, was with him. When leaving, Lawson-Bankou told journalists his client had agreed to speak about the events in question to the judge.
The hearing was expected to continue on Tuesday, Lawson-Bankou said.
The former Elf CEO was arrested in Ivory Coast's economic capital of Abidjan on Friday night as he tried to board an Air France flight to Paris, an Ivorian security source said.
He was transferred to Togo the next day under an arrest warrant.
Le Floch-Prigent's lawyer Patrick Klugman has denounced the swift international transfer, saying extradition procedures did not appear to have been respected.
He earlier condemned the transfer as a "kidnapping" but later backtracked from the remark.
An Ivorian prosecutor however said the transfer was an operation between two police forces in line with Interpol rules.
The investigation involves a complaint from an Emirati businessman who alleges he was the victim of a $48-million (37-million-euro) fraud.
The businessman, Abbas Al Yousef, claims Le Floch-Prigent was acting as his personal adviser during the alleged fraud.
Togo's former minister of territorial administration, Pascal Bodjona, has been charged over the allegations as well as Togolese businessman Bertin Sow Agba.
Klugman also claimed his client was caught up in an internal Togolese political affair. He said he feared for the health of Le Floch-Prigent, who turns 69 this month and has a medical appointment in France on September 26.
Le Floch-Prigent's swift transfer to Togo came after Lome earlier this year arrested and extradited the former defence minister of Ivory Coast's disgraced ex-president Laurent Gbagbo.
Moise Lida Kouassi had fled to Togo in the chaotic and bloody months after Gbagbo refused to acknowledge his defeat to current President Alassane Ouattara in November 2010 presidential polls.
"This is a first. I have never seen an 'extradition' happen so quickly, without the involvement of a court," Antoine Glaser, a French journalist and longtime specialist in African affairs, said of Le Floch-Prigent's transfer.
"It is a sign that it is being settled at the highest levels of state between the president of Togo and the president of Ivory Coast."
Glaser also said the reasons given publicly for the investigation may indeed be a "smokescreen" for some political or financial score settling.
The case involves accusations that a network claimed to have access to $275 million in a Togolese account left by former Ivorian military ruler Robert Guei, who was killed in 2002.
Al Yousef, who manages investments, including in the oil and gas industry, alleges $48 million was embezzled from him in the affair.
Le Floch-Prigent, currently an oil industry consultant, has already served jail terms in France for corruption which dated from his time as head of Elf from 1989 to 1993.
Several Elf senior managers were jailed after a corruption scandal that broke in the 1990s. The company was taken over by French oil giant Total in 2000.
Togo, a nation of six million people under French control prior to independence in 1960, has been run by the same family for more than four decades.
The military installed President Faure Gnassingbe in power after the 2005 death of his father Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had ruled the west African nation with an iron fist for 38 years. He has since won elections in 2005 and 2010.