MADRID (VN) – Spain has produced some of the world’s greatest surreal art, from Dali’s melting clocks to Buñuel’s Andalusian dog.
Based on the opening two days of hearings here, perhaps the Operación Puerto trial will someday be added to that list.
Nearly seven years after police raids unveiled one of Europe’s most extensive doping rings, what could have been the trial of the century has turned into a shell game.
Hamstrung by the inconsistency of not having an anti-doping law on the books at the time of the May 2006 police raids, courts can only consider lesser charges.
The long-anticipated trial started to slip into the absurdity even before it began.
Monday’s opening day was nothing short of a media circus. The five defendants had to elbow their way through an ugly media horde only later to be lined up before the presiding judge for yet more photos, prompting a humiliated Yolanda Fuentes to complain that they felt like “circus monkeys.”
Tuesday finally got down to the business of hearing testimony from star defendant, Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, but not before the court, in a morning session, ruled that Tyler Hamilton would be called as a witness and that Fuentes’ computers would be off limits to protect his privacy.
So began a slow dance around the truth, with the judge reconfirming that the court would only consider charges regarding public health.
The upshot: Don’t expect major revelations over the next two months.
On Tuesday, Judge Julia Patricia Santamaría sat at the head of the wood-paneled courtroom. To her right were two prosecutors and seven other participating lawyers in the prosecution and to her left four defense attorneys.
A few family members sat in the audience while about 50 journalists witnessed the unfolding events, some furiously posting real-time updates on Twitter.
Just before noon, Fuentes took center stage, enduring nearly four hours of testimony, but he might as well have been dancing.
The 57-year-old politely answered questions from two prosecution attorneys without ever saying anything.
Fuentes didn’t blink as he explained that he conducted blood transfusions to protect his clients’ well being.
“If a sportsman had blood that was very thick, we would take out the blood to evade this danger and we would freeze it,” Fuentes said. “Later, if the sportsman had a very low hematocrit level or anemia, we would re-inject it for questions of health.”
When Fuentes dropped a blockbuster in the opening 15 minutes of testimony, admitting that he worked with more than just cyclists, it appeared to never occur to the prosecutor to ask for names.
Only 56 of the 200 names on Fuentes’ list were cyclists. The others remain safely protected behind a wall of silence.
“In 2006, I worked with athletes of all kinds: soccer players, cyclists, track and field. I worked with individual sportsmen, not teams,” Fuentes said. “It could be a cyclist from a cycling team, a football player from a soccer team, a track and field athlete or a boxer …”
Fuentes handled the questioning like a seasoned pro, keeping a straight face even as he explained away everything in the Puerto dossier as if it were some sort of simple misunderstanding.
“Sometimes we did the blood extractions in nearby hotels, because the athletes wanted to protect their privacy and not coincide with others in the lab,” he said. “We explained verbally the risks of the transfusions and how they worked, but we never signed anything. We informed the cyclist, just like in every consultation. I do not know if they later informed their teams or directors.”
When questioned about why he used an elaborate system of code names to label blood bags and symbols to outline doping schedules, Fuentes replied with aplomb, “for fear of the media.”
“In 2001, my phone was hacked by the media and they ended up publishing some messages I had sent Angel Casero,” he said. “I always feared that my phone was being tapped by the media.”
When asked how EPO and other doping products found by police appeared in the blood bags he stored, Fuentes seemed to have an answer for everything: “There was only one box of EPO, and that was for my daughter, who had cancer. And the suitcases found at the apartment, they belonged to (helper) Alberto León. I never opened them. I never knew they had medical products. Alberto León cleaned up around the office. I paid him 150 euros per week. He never participated in the transfusions.”
Fuentes assured the court that his system of identifying blood bags and keeping them safely refrigerated was infallible, something that Jesus Manzano, an ex-pro who will be called as a prosecution witness next month, will likely counter.
The ex-Kelme rider nearly died after receiving a botched transfusion during the 2003 Tour de France. Fuentes insisted he never participated in transfusions during competition and denied having Manzano as a client.
Manzano’s lawyer, Carlos Sanchez, told VeloNews after Tuesday’s hearing that his client was also suing Fuentes for damages.
“Fuentes’ practices ended the sporting career of my client,” Sanchez said. “My client will speak the truth when he comes to the court, unlike what we saw today.”
Fuentes did, however, confirm that Roberto Heras, Santiago Botero and Unai Osa were among his former clients. That’s as far as he went in naming names.
“I will not say who I was working with,” Fuentes said Monday. “That’s all behind me now.”
When questioning began from Cristina Quero, representing the Spanish cycling federation, Fuentes suddenly went silent.
“Your honor, allow me to exercise my right not to answer the questions of the accusations,” Fuentes said. With that, he sat down.
Lawyers were allowed to read their questions into the official record. Attorneys representing the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the Guardia Civil, Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), and Manzano started to ask the questions everyone wanted to know.
All what they got in return was Fuentes sitting in silence.
At 4:00 p.m., the judge ended the day’s proceedings, with the defense lawyers expected to examine Fuentes on Wednesday.
As Fuentes walked out of the court, a wall of media waited for him on the street. He was hounded as he fought to find refuge from the horde in a waiting taxi.
The circus continues Wednesday with former Liberty Seguros boss Manolo Saiz, Vicente Belda, Ignacio Labarta, and Yolanda Fuentes all waiting their turns.
Buñuel couldn’t have written a better script.