Murder and cover-ups in 'Taiwan Connection'

Published Nov 26, 2003


By Hugh Schofield

Paris - France has known more than its share of corruption scandals, but there is a story waiting to be told that - with its cocktail of murders, arms deals, massive commissions and allegations of political cover-ups - threatens to put them in the shade.

According to a book by one of France's top anti-corruption judges, the "Taiwan Connection" has led to eight suspicious deaths, two and a half billion francs (R3-billion) in missing bribes, and law-suits that could end costing the French tax-payer an even greater fortune.

And yet every attempt to investigate the "frigates-to-Taipei" case has been blocked by a wall of official silence. Successive governments of left and right have invoked a "defence secrecy" law to prevent judges having access to key documents which could explain where the missing billions have gone.

According to Thierry Jean-Pierre, who after exposing illegal funding at the Socialist party is now a member of the EU parliament, the result is a growing suspicion that the French elite has once again something to hide. The spectre is returning of the dreaded "retro-commissions" - the illegal rake-offs used to fund political parties and personalities that were the stuff of successive criminal trials in the 1990s.

"Everyone agrees: the frigates affair is easily the biggest politico-financial scandal of the last ten years," writes Jean-Pierre in Taiwan Connection - Scandals and Murders at the Heart of the Republic.

"The reputation of France has been seriously stained. And when I compare our old democracy with Taiwan - a young country where martial law was only lifted a short while ago - I am seized by shame."

The story begins in the late 1980s when Taiwan was seeking to upgrade its fleet, and the state-owned French defence-electronics giant Thomson teamed up with the Naval Construction Directorate (DCN) to lure Taipei from an almost-completed contract with Korea.

The Taiwanese admirals needed a good argument to dump Hyundai for France's La Fayette class frigates - which were still unbuilt and even on paper failed to meet many of Taiwan's own specifications - and, according to Jean-Pierre, that argument was the promise of massive commissions from Thomson.

But buying influence in Taipei was only part of it. Thomson also needed to overcome French government concern that "Contract Bravo" would wreck relations with Beijing, so more money was needed to grease the wheels.

By 1991 there were three lobbying networks, run by Taipei-based fixer Andrew Wang - alias Mr Shampoo; the romantically-named Lily Liu in China; and in Paris by a top executive in the state-owned oil giant Elf. It was Alfred Sirven who was to spend millions trying to influence foreign minister Roland Dumas via his mistress.

To pay for this Thomson inflated the prices of the six frigates to a figure of 16 billion francs, of which Jean-Pierre says a staggering five billion went on bribes and commissions. Half of that has since been identified and some frozen - but that still leaves vast amounts unaccounted for.

In the second half of his book, Jean-Pierre recounts what happened when the whistle was blown.

A Taiwanese naval official called Yin Ching-feng was about to report his suspicions of bribe-taking but in December 1993 he was murdered. Others who may have known the secret also died in unexplained circumstances, including Yin's nephew and a bank official who acted for Taiwan's naval dockyards.

In October 2000 a French intelligence agent named Thierry Imbot who had been charged with following the negotiations for Contract Bravo plunged to his death from his flat in central Paris a day before an appointment with a journalist.

And a year later a former Taiwan-based Thomson official called Jacques Morrison who had told friends he feared for his life because he was the last witness to the frigate talks also fell to his death from a high window in a Paris suburb.

Jean-Pierre argues that there are records at Thomson - the now-privatised Thales - that would cast light on where the missing money went. But the two judges looking into claims that part of it came back to France in "retro-commissions" have been consistently denied access by ministers.

This contrasts strongly with Taiwan where furore over the frigates scandal helped end the nationalist Kuomintang era in 2000, and where the new government has waived official secrets rules for all but the most sensitive of documents.

And he fears that the French public will end up picking up the tab. If Taiwan can prove that Thomson broke its contract by paying commissions, then it will have to be reimbursed - while failure to prosecute middlemen like Wang will mean he ends up keeping his millions.

"Five billion francs well and truly disappeared in the signature of a national contract," Jean-Pierre concludes. "It went to pay illegal intermediaries, parties and politicians, soldiers and businessmen. France, and the French, will end up paying for the personal enrichment of a small number of crooks."

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