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Puerto trial winds down; decision could be months away

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Apr. 2, 2013
  • Updated Apr. 2, 2013 at 11:28 AM EDT
Tyler Hamilton testified during the Puerto trial that his urine turned black after he was given some bad blood. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

LEON, Spain (VN) — It could be weeks or even months before the final verdict is handed down in the Operación Puerto trial, which is winding down this week in Madrid.

Tuesday marked the final day of closing arguments for the defense in the 10-week trial of the Puerto blood doping ring.

Puerto ringleader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes had the final word before presiding judge Julia Patricia Santamaria considers the evidence. There is no official time limitation on a ruling, so it could be weeks or months before the final verdict is revealed.

Fuentes denied endangering the health of his clients, as evidence in the high-profile case concluded. “In my 35-year long medical career I have never prejudiced the health of my patients, nor have I ever been aware of damage I have caused to one of my patients,” Fuentes told the court in Madrid. “The objective that I always pursue as a doctor is to protect the health of others, not to prejudice it.”

The Puerto trial has put doping in sport and how Spain handled the case under scrutiny.

Fuentes and four other defendants are facing possible jail terms, fines and, in the case of Fuentes and his sister, Yolanda, termination of their medical licenses.

The others, ex-Liberty Seguros manager Manolo Saíz and ex-Kelme directors Vicente Belda and Ignacio Labarta, also face possible jail terms and fines for facilitating Fuentes’ doping ring.

Since the beginning of testimony in late January, the Spanish court kept a tight rein on what evidence was allowed and how far questioning could go.

Earlier, Fuentes’ lawyer, Tomas Valdivieso, had told the court that his client did not deserve an exemplary two-year sentence as had been called for by the prosecution, but rather one that complied with the law. At the time of Fuentes’ arrest in 2006, doping was not a crime in Spain.

“We want sport to be clean, honorable and that Spanish sportsmen and women do not commit crimes — but that is not the motive of this trial,” said Valdivieso. “There has been a confusion created that from a legal point of view, if blood is a medicine or not. And it is not.”

The court took a narrow interpretation of the existing law at the time of the 2006 police raids, with the charges being limited to “endangering public health.”

That prompted frustration from both media and lawyers joining the prosecution’s case, who were pressing for more definitive information about who was on Fuentes’ client list.

Santamaria put the muzzle on Fuentes every time he was questioned about his clients or when he offered to provide names.

Curiously enough, defense lawyers never denied that Fuentes practiced blood doping, but rather argued that the extractions and transfusions were carried out safely.

Prosecutors and testimony from former clients, such as ex-pro Tyler Hamilton, who testified via videoconference that his urine turned black after undergoing a transfusion of rotten blood, countered that argument.

Jesus Manzano, a former Kelme rider, testified he fell ill after a botched transfusion.

Expert witnesses for the prosecution questioned Fuentes’ practices and characterized transfusions carried out clandestinely in hotel rooms as anything but safe.

‘Two trials in parallel’

After more than two months of sometimes-gripping testimony, many observers are frustrated by the court’s hesitancy to delve deeper.

Spanish journalist Juan Gutiérrez, an editor and reporter working with the Spanish daily AS, attended every day of testimony during the 10-week trial. He described the Puerto case as “two trials in parallel.”

“There is a sensation that there were two trials. There was one in the courtroom, with the lawyers only looking at the questions of public health, while on the other side, there were larger questions that were not being answered,” Gutiérrez said.

“Many, especially in the foreign media, were disappointed and the trial did not meet expectations, but from how the court is handling the case within the context of what was illegal, the court was doing the best it could.”

Gutiérrez said defense attorneys are waiting to pounce on any mistakes that Santamaria might make and use that as a foundation for appeals.

“If there was a law against doping at the time of the case, it would be another story,” he said. “The defense is trying to provoke the judge to cross the line and do something that will allow them to appeal the case.”

Gutiérrez said the government bungled that case in 2006 when Spanish police uncovered the Puerto ring. Efforts by a new government to come on strong against doping, especially with Madrid’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, comes too late.

“The foreign media doesn’t understand the case very well, but the problem was that the courts and the government generated so many doubts at the beginning of the case,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me that they think badly of us. The government now is trying to change the image, but it comes too late.”

Bags of blood

Then there is the question of the fate of some 200 bags of frozen red blood cells and plasma that remain in the hands of Spanish authorities.

There was some confusion that some 50 bags might have “disappeared,” but police officials said all the bags that were confiscated in police raids in 2006 have been accounted for.

Spain’s anti-doping minister has been pushing for the judge to release the bags in order to try to determine whom they belong to.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. Santamaria said a decision of the fate of the blood bags would not come until her final ruling is released.

And the possibility of an appeal and more legal wrangling means the bags will likely stay under lock and key for quite some time.

While there is much anticipation about whose blood is in the bags, many of the identities have already been revealed.

And many of Fuentes’ clients had more than one bag in the freezers, meaning that even if the court decides to release the bags, only a few more might be identified.

Drawing conclusions

In the end, the Puerto trial didn’t provide the bombshells that many were expecting or hoping for.

Even by admitting that he worked with other sports, including athletics, tennis, and even boxing, the majority of Fuentes’ clients were cyclists, at least according to what was revealed during the trial.

Fuentes was adept at playing the court to try to come across as being willing to cooperate, but the end game was to try to avoid going to jail.

Many of Puerto’s most salacious details — the doping schedules and code names — were already leaked in such newspapers as El País and AS years ago.

What marked the Puerto trial were the direct testimonies from Hamilton, Manzano, and ex-pro Jörg Jaksche. It represented the first time, under oath, that the nuts and bolts of doping practices were outlined in such detail.

What’s frustrating is that after more than eight years, the full story may never be revealed. Perhaps Fuentes is waiting to see how the verdict plays out before making a move.

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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