France's former U.N. ambassador, Jean-Bernard Merimee, was detained for questioning in Paris in connection with an investigation into corruption in the $64 billion United Nations oil-for-food program, French officials said Tuesday.
A French investigative magistrate, Philippe Courroye, took Merimee into custody Monday to determine why former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime granted him rights to purchase about 4.5 million of barrels of Iraqi oil at a discounted price. Merimee, 68, is the most senior former French official to be detained by Courroye during a three-year probe into possible corruption by French officials and companies in Iraq.
The magistrate's action focuses renewed attention on how Hussein sought to channel valuable oil deals to former and current officials and businessmen from influential governments, including France and Russia, in an effort to gain support for an easing of economic sanctions. A U.S. Senate investigation in May charged senior Kremlin operatives and a Russian politician with reaping millions of dollars in illicit profits through the U.N. program.
The U.N. Security Council established the oil-for-food program in December, 1996, to ease a humanitarian crisis exacerbated by the imposition of the U.N. embargo on Baghdad following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The program allowed Iraq to sell its oil to purchase food and medicine and pay billions in war reparations.
But Hussein's government effectively bypassed a weak system of U.N. safeguards designed to prevent the regime from gaining control of billions in proceeds, and siphoned more than $2 billion in kickbacks from its trading partners.
Courroye launched an investigation in August 2002 into allegations that a subsidiary of the French oil giant Total laundered money through a Swiss company to pay bribes to officials in Iraq and Russia. But the probe has widened since the collapse of Hussein's regime produced a trove of Iraqi documents outlining the former regime's abuses of the oil-for-food program.
Courroye is probing the actions of other French businessmen and officials, including France's former interior minister Charles Pasqua, whose names have appeared on a list of recipients of Iraqi oil deals. Courroye detained a former aide to Pasqua for questioning in connections with those deals. Pasqua denied last year that he ever "received anything from Saddam Hussein, neither petrol nor money."
French officials in New York and Washington said their government would cooperate fully with Courroye's investigation and turn over documents. "The position of the French government is to say we want to know the truth about what happened," said Natalie Loiseau, a spokeswoman for the French embassy in Washington.
Attempts to reach an attorney for Merimee Tuesday through the French mission to the U.N. and the French magistrate's office were unsuccessful.
Merimee served as France's ambassador to the U.N. from 1991 to 1995. He subsequently headed France's embassy in Italy until 1998. He also served as a special adviser on the European Commission to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan between 1999 and 2002.
Merimee first came under scrutiny after his name appeared on a list of individuals who had received rights to purchase oil at a discounted rate. Charles Duelfer, a CIA adviser who headed an exhaustive U.S. probe, published documents alleging that Merimee transferred 2 million barrels to a Swiss company called Fenar Petroleum in late 2001. Merimee subsequently received two allocations to buy about 2.5 million barrels on behalf of a French company, but those deals never went through, according to Duelfer's report.
It remains unclear whether Merimee was serving with the French government at the time he allegedly received rights to buy Iraqi oil.
U.N. officials said that during that period, Merimee was a special adviser to Annan, helping to draft an agreement on European funding of relief operations. But officials said Merimee played no role in setting the U.N.'s Iraq policy.
"We have made it clear that we support the efforts of national authorities who wish to pursue proceedings into activities of their own nationals who may or may not have been involved in the oil-for-food program," said the U.N.'s chief spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.