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THE EURO ZONE

Common cases

This week, Spain's former economy minister Luis de Guindos was called to testify as a witness in the investigation into the near-collapse of Banco Popular in 2017. The National Court has also called Ana Botín, chairwoman of Santander, the banking behemoth that bought Popular for one euro that same year. Here in Spain, it's becoming very normal - perhaps too normal? - to see high-profile figures appearing as witnesses, or even as defendants, in cases concerning financial misconduct.

De Guindos will give his testimony on 2 April via videolink from Frankfurt, where he's currently based as vice-president of the European Central Bank. It won't be the first time he's done so: the former economy minister also gave evidence remotely last March, in the court case concerning Bankia's disastrous IPO in 2011. At that time, the flailing lender was chaired by Rodrigo Rato, economy minister and deputy prime minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004, under then-Conservative leader José María Aznar. Rato began a four-and-a-half year prison sentence at the end of 2018, after being found guilty of fraudulent practices while chairman of Bankia, including liberal use of so-called "black credit cards". This month, this once untouchable politician was granted twelve days' leave from his cell for good behaviour.

De Guindos' former boss is no stranger to the witness box, either: in July 2017, Mariano Rajoy became the first ever sitting Spanish prime minister to give evidence in a criminal case.

Rajoy was testifying in the so-called "Gurtel" affair - an investigation into a cash-for-contracts scheme allegedly used by Popular Party (PP) ministers during the early 2000s, when he was the party's vice-secretary-general. In May 2018, two of Gurtel's investigating judges ruled that the PP had run secret accounts parallel to the official ones "at least since 1989" and questioned the credibility of the testimony given by Rajoy, who claimed to have had no knowledge of nefarious goings-on during the relevant period.

That same month, the judges sentenced Luis Bárcenas, the PP's former treasurer, to 33 years in prison for money laundering, tax offences and personal enrichment. Although Rajoy wasn't accused of any wrongdoing himself, the Gurtel case effectively ended his career, with Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez tabling and winning a no-confidence vote against him in June 2018.

Along with dozens of other prominent Spanish politicians, Rajoy also appeared as a witness before Spain's Supreme Court last summer, albeit in a very different kind of case. In that trial, the alleged crimes were of a political rather than financial nature, and the sentences eventually handed down were disproportionate to the offences. The same cannot be said of the high profile fraud cases that occur with marked regularity in Spain - cases which frequently see the country's most powerful men and women appearing in the witness box.