Madrid – Former Tour de France winner Alberto Contador will be among those who will give testimony to a Spanish court which will open hearings on Monday into the 'Operation Puerto' doping scandal, seven years after it erupted in 2006.
The trial in Madrid, will do little to boost the credentials of a sport still reeling from Lance Armstrong's admission that he cheated his way to a record seven Tour de France wins.
In the separate Spanish case, a sophisticated doping network was blown wide open on May 23, 2006 when Spanish police raided several apartments and a laboratory in Madrid and seized around 200 bags of blood.
A number of top cyclists, including Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Contador, and Italian Ivan Basso, were implicated.
On the same day, police arrested doctors, sporting directors and trainers suspected of taking part in the doping scheme.
From Monday, five people will have to answer charges of an “offence against public health”, including the suspected mastermind of the network, 57-year-old doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
The other four are Fuentes' sister Yolanda; former Liberty Seguros cycling team director Manolo Saiz; and former Comunitat Valencia cycling team chief Vicente Belda along with his deputy Jose Ignacio Labarta.
The case against the network's alleged blood expert, doctor Jose Luis Merino Batres, has been provisionally closed on the grounds that he has Alzheimer's.
The five defendants are charged with endangering public health rather than incitement to doping, which was not a crime at the time of the arrests. A Spanish anti-doping law was passed only in November 2006.
The distinction between the two charges is likely to be pivotal.
The prosecutor, who is seeking a two-year prison sentence plus a two-year professional ban for the accused, will have to show the performance-enhancing blood transfusions put the riders' health at risk.
Fuentes, who has always described himself as a doctor who simply wanted to help athletes, flatly denies this.
In his written defence, a copy of which was published by leading daily El Pais, the Canary Islands doctor said the blood and plasma were stored in “ideal conditions”.
“None of the athletes in this case have been been harmed,” he said.
Former cyclist Jesus Manzano, scheduled to testify on February 11, is however expected to argue the contrary. He has claimed he received blood transfusions.
Manzano, a former rider on Spanish team Kelme, of which Fuentes was then the head doctor, was sacked after the 2004 Tour of Spain after being discovered with a woman in his hotel room.
He subsequently revealed the extent of doping in the Spanish team, claiming he had been taken to hospital on the 2003 Tour de France after collapsing on the stage to Morzine in the French Alps.
Another witness will be Contador, the Tour de France winner in 2007 and 2009 who has returned to competition after a two-year ban for testing positive to the banned substance clenbuterol, which he blamed on a contaminated steak.
The 30-year-old Contador, due to appear February 5, was initially linked to 'Operation Puerto' but was later cleared of any involvement by a Spanish judge and the International Cycling Union (UCI).
Although a number of top cyclists were implicated in the affair, initial reports, as well as Fuentes, said other athletes – primarily tennis players and footballers – had been involved.
Those statements were later retracted.
The investigators' final report contained a list of 58 clients, all cyclists.
Of them, only six have suffered sporting sanctions: Valverde, Germans Jan Ullrich and Joerg Jaksche and Italians Basso, Michele Scarponi and Giampaolo Caruso, who was later acquitted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
The investigating judge, Antonio Serrano, closed the case twice, in 2007 and 2008, on the grounds that the doping-related allegations were not illegal at the time and that the small amounts found of blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) did not constitute a health risk.
The Madrid Provincial Courts obliged him to re-open the case.
Spain now is preparing a new anti-doping law aiming to harmonise its legislation with the World Anti-Doping Agency's anti-doping code. – Sapa-AFP