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‘THE OLD LION IS AMONG US’ Former French Polynesia president jeered in jail

PAPEETE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, Nov. 10, 2009) – French Sen. Gaston Flosse, who has dominated Tahiti's politics for more than a quarter of a century, spent his first night ever Monday in Tahiti's Nuutania Prison in connection with a French police corruption investigation.

After undergoing questioning separately before two judges all Monday afternoon, Flosse was taken from the Papeete Courthouse to the prison in the adjacent Commune of Faa'a around 6:30 pm.

A Tahiti Nui Television (TNTV) journalist reported live by telephone during Monday night's news program that many of the prisoners in the overcrowded penitentiary greeted Flosse with shouts of "The old lion has arrived" and the "old lion is among us".

An hour later, the French 24-hour news television channel LCI made Flosse's temporary imprisonment the lead story in its news report. Later in the day, France's major daily newspapers, such as Le Figaro and Le Monde, posted articles about Flosse on their Web sites.

Elsewhere, the news traveled throughout the Pacific, where Flosse is well known, having been Tahiti's powerful president from 1984-2004.

Flosse's lawyers said Monday night that Tahiti's veteran politician must spend a minimum of 15 days in custody to allow time for investigating judges to arrange confrontations with at least two of the more than a dozen other persons indicted in the same investigation.

However, one of his lawyers said a request for Flosse's release from prison would be prepared for consideration on Friday.

Flosse, 78, was indicted on Sept. 30 on three charges stemming from a long, ongoing French judicial investigation into an alleged corruption scheme centering on the French Polynesia Office des Postes et Télécommunications (OPT).

The veteran politician was indicted on charges of receiving bribes, the misuse of corporate assets and complicity in the destruction of evidence in connection with the investigation of the OPT and the advertising agency 2H, which handled ads for the yearly telephone book and the in-flight magazine for the government-owned international airline Air Tahiti Nui.

An estimated crowd of 500 supporters from Flosse's political party and the public in general gathered Monday afternoon in front of Tahiti's War Memorial in downtown Papeete. An ecumenical mass was celebrated to support Flosse, who has spent the past several years in and out of courtrooms on a variety of charges.

During those years, Flosse had far more acquittals than convictions. His most serious conviction so far occurred this September in a case unrelated to the OPT corruption investigation. Although the decision is still being appealed, Flosse could end up losing his eligibility to hold public office for one year.

French gendarmes were posted at strategic places Monday night along the road from the Papeete courthouse to the prison in Faa'a. Although Flosse supporters had been present for most of the afternoon in the front and back of the courthouse and in front of the prison, there were no confrontations with law enforcement officers.

Flosse was allowed to meet briefly with members of his family before he was placed in a police vehicle for the short trip to the prison. Leaving the courthouse by the rear, Flosse, who wasn't wearing his eyeglasses, waved to the crowd of supporters.

Flosse was sent to prison Monday night to be held in custody for further questioning six days after the French Senate Office lifted his parliamentary immunity. Flosse, leader of a pro-France, pro-Tahiti autonomy political party in French Polynesia, is serving a second term as a French senator and is also one of the 57 representatives in the French Polynesia Assembly.

The judicial confrontations investigating judges are reportedly planning for Flosse on Nov. 18 at the latest, according to one of his attorneys, involve French businessman Hubert Haddad, Haddad's right arm in business, Michel Yonker, and Melba Ortas, Flosse's personal secretary for many years.

All three have been indicted in the corruption case. Haddad remains in prison along with Geffry Salmon, the former OPT and Air Tahiti Nui board chairman.

Meanwhile, the investigating judges scheduled a confrontation between Haddad and Salmon on Tuesday morning.

Haddad headed the advertising agency 2H that handled ads for the OPT's yearly telephone book and the in-flight magazine for the international airline Air Tahiti Nui, in which the Tahiti government is the majority stockholder.

Haddad has allegedly admitted having made regular cash payments of money for at least 10 years to Flosse's political party. This allegedly occurred during a period when such payments from the private sector were a common practice throughout France even though they were technically illegal. The law has since been changed.

Haddad is accused of having allegedly distributed the money in envelopes using various persons close to Flosse, such as his private secretary.

Salmon has been held in Tahiti's prison for over four months on a charge of alleged money laundering stemming from investigators' discovery of significant financial assets in his bank safe deposit box.

James Estall, the head of that bank - Banque Socredo - was indicted on Oct. 29 on a charge of money laundering for having not informed investigating authorities about the suspect movements of large funds through his bank, particularly with regard to Salmon. Estall is not being held in prison.

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