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THE EURO ZONE

Trying times

The soon-to-be-announced verdict in Rodrigo Rato's fraud trial is, for many Spaniards, imbued with a symbolic importance. Rato, former head of the International Monetary Fund and ex-deputy prime minister and economy minister in Mariano Rajoy's government, is being tried for his alleged involvement in Bankia's 'black credit card' case. Along with 64 other defendants, Rato stands accused of running up substantial bills on these 'blank' cards, which were handed out like sweets to senior Bankia officials. The cards' monthly limits were not taxed and did not count as part of the bankers' wages; accordingly, the PIN-happy board members are said to have run up a bill of about 15.5 million euros between them.

If he is found guilty in this trial, many will want to see Rato behind bars. Up until last month, there seemed little reason to think that such a punishment would actually be meted out to the once-deputy prime minister - and not just because of his spent prestige as a senior member of the Spanish government. In Spain, as in many other European countries, authorities usually favour punishing banks rather than individual bankers. But on January 16th, five board members of the former Novacaixagalicia bank were handed two-year prison sentences for bankrupting the lender in the process of accumulating personal wealth. Their imprisonment sends out a message of hope to those who want to see individuals like Rato held to account for their role in bringing Spain's banking sector to its knees, often at the expense of the taxpayer. In 2012, Bankia required a 22-billion-euro state bailout.

Yet even if Rato is found not guilty or receives a light reprimand for his alleged role in the 'black' credit cards case, he is far from in the clear. The former IMF boss is also being investigated for tax evasion in his personal financial affairs and in connection with allegations that he accepted kickbacks from firms seeking preferential treatment while he was chairman of Bankia. On the former count, things appear very murky indeed: this Tuesday, El País revealed that a report by the National Fraud Investigation Office it has had access to indicates that Rato evaded taxes worth 6.8 million euros between 2004 and 2015. Rato is said to have evaded these taxes by a complex network of offshore 'companies' with zero tax liabilities. Again, these alleged financial misdemeanours are held by many in Spain to be allegorical: there was Rato, along with his fellow bankers and senior politicians, piling up huge personal wealth as ordinary Spaniards endured a grinding recession.

There are other precedents for trigger-happy bankers getting what they deserve; it's just that they're few and far between. In 2012, Ghanian banker Kweku Adoboli received seven years in prison for off-the-books trading that almost brought the Swiss behemoth UBS to its knees. At the time, Adoboli's sentence seemed to show that bankers, not just banks, would be held responsible for reckless behaviour (Adoboli was released in 2015 and lost his appeal against deportation from the UK last year).

Rato's imprisonment would send out a far more powerful message to Spaniards - namely, that corrupt politicians no longer enjoy immunity from the law.