Home Europe French minister impersonators jailed in €55m scam

French minister impersonators jailed in €55m scam

A French court has sentenced two men to several years in jail for their role in a bizarre money-making scam that involved impersonating a government minister to dupe the rich and famous, sometimes using a silicone mask in his likeness.

The court found that Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, were the masterminds of the scam in which three victims parted with €55m.

The heaviest sentence, of 11 years plus a €2m fine, went to Chikli, who shouted from the dock: “It’s a scandal. You should be ashamed.” Lasarevitsch received a seven-year sentence and a €1m fine.

The Franco-Israeli pair were tried for organised fraud and using the identity of Jean-Yves Le Drian, who at the time was France’s defence minister and is now the foreign minister, to raise money from wealthy political, business and religious figures.

Five others aged 27 to 59 faced lesser charges. One was released on Wednesday and four others received sentences ranging from suspended 15-month terms to five years.

The scheme, which took place from 2015 to 2016, involved fraudsters posing as Le Drian to ask politicians and executives for financial aid for what they described as secret operations by the French state.

One would appear in video conferences behind a fake official desk, wearing a dark suit and a silicone mask of Le Drian.

The fake minister made calls by telephone and videolink to more than 150 targets, of whom three were successfully duped.

Prosecutors said the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, was conned by a Le Drian impersonator in 2016 and made five transfers for a total €20m to accounts in Poland and China. Three of the payments were frozen but €7.7m disappeared.

A few months later, a Turkish business magnate, İnan Kıraç, was allegedly convinced to wire more than $47m in what he thought was ransom money for two journalists held hostage in Syria.

Le Drian, a senior ally of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, became foreign minister in 2017 after serving five years as defence minister.

In 2015, a French court sentenced Chikli in absentia to seven years in prison for similar scams in 2005 and 2006 in which he posed as business chief executives.

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.

Six of the defendants, including Chikli and Lasarevitsch, were charged over both the Le Drian scam and the suspected plot to target Prince Albert, while the seventh was charged solely over the alleged Monaco plot.

Others targeted unsuccessfully included Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo, the French Aids charity Sidaction, the chief executive of the cement company Lafarge and the archbishop of Paris.

In an interview with French television in 2010 about previous scams, Chikli said he was intrigued by the “game” of scamming. His story inspired a 2015 film, Je Compte Sur Vous (I’m Counting on You).

Original article on theguardian.com

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