MADRID (AFP) — A doctor accused of masterminding a vast doping network that rocked the sporting world and snared top cyclists went on trial in Spain on Monday along with four alleged conspirators.
The case centers on a sophisticated network which was blown wide open on May 23, 2006 when Spanish police seized around 200 bags of blood in the investigation dubbed Operación Puerto.
Trial witnesses include Alberto Contador, the Tour de France winner in 2007 and 2009 who has returned to competition after a two-year ban for testing positive for the banned substance clenbuterol, which he blamed on a contaminated steak.
He was initially linked to the Puerto case but later cleared of any involvement.
The current 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.
The five defendants, including the suspected mastermind of the network, 57-year-old doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, are facing charges of an “offense against public health.”
The other four defendants are Fuentes’ sister Yolanda, former Liberty Seguros director Manolo Saiz, former Comunitat Valencia chief Vicente Belda, along with his deputy, Jose Ignacio Labarta.
Fuentes, in a suit and blue tie, and the other four defendants were swarmed by reporters as they arrived at the Madrid court on Monday for the start of the hearing, but made no public comment.
Monday morning’s closed-door hearing dealt with procedural matters and judge Maria Santamaria then adjourned the trial until Tuesday morning, when Fuentes was due to be the first to testify.
They 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 is seeking a two-year prison sentence plus a two-year professional ban for the accused. He will have to show the performance-enhancing blood transfusions put riders’ health at risk.
Fuentes, who has denied putting athletes’ health at risk, will be the first defendant to take the stand.
Witnesses such as former cyclist Jesus Manzano, who is scheduled to testify on February 11, will try to refute that assertion.
Since 2004 Manzano, a former rider on Spanish team Kelme, of which Fuentes was then the head doctor, has alleged organized doping in the team and says he himself underwent transfusions of adulterated blood.
The 30-year-old Contador, due to appear on February 5, was cleared of any involvement in the Puerto affair by a Spanish judge and the sport’s world governing body, the UCI.
A 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 disease.
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: Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, Germans Jan Ullrich and Joerg Jaksche, and Italians Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi, and Caruso, who was later acquitted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
The investigating judge, Antonio Serrano, closed the case in 2007 and 2008 on the grounds that the doping-related allegations were not illegal at the time and that the small amounts of blood-booster EPO (erythropoietin) found did not constitute a health risk.
The Madrid Provincial Courts obliged him to re-open the case.
The opening hearing in the case was due to deal with procedural matters. The trial is expected to last until March 22.