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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Fifa trial: prosecution case rests and defence offers no evidence

The trial has produced moments of high drama including alleged witness intimidation, testimony from a pop star and a juror who fell asleep 

José Maria Marin of Brazil, one of three defendants in the FIFA scandal, arriving at the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn on December 13, 2017 in New York, when the prosecution made its closing arguments.  Don Emmert / AFP
José Maria Marin of Brazil, one of three defendants in the FIFA scandal, arriving at the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn on December 13, 2017 in New York, when the prosecution made its closing arguments. Don Emmert / AFP

Three former South American football officials were at the centre of a vast conspiracy that deprived the sport itself of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to American prosecutors who have spent years building a case which they say exposes the ugly reality of the world game.

For the past month they have been laying out their evidence describing how a clubby culture of corruption distorted deals for TV rights by awarding contracts in exchange for bribes.

The trial has produced moments of high drama, including accusations that a defendant was threatening a co-operating witness, and the testimony of a pop star.

In her closing argument, Kristin Mace, assistant US attorney, laid out the prosecution's case before the federal court in Brooklyn.

“This trial has given you a unique look inside a broad … international conspiracy,” she told the jury. “A conspiracy to enrich the elite soccer officials of the world, bribe after bribe, year after year, decade after decade.”

Jose Maria Marin, Manuel Burga and Juan Angel Napout have each denied being part of a conspiracy worth tens of millions of dollars in bribes paid in exchange for help winning lucrative commercial rights to the Fifa World Cup and other international tournaments.

They are the first to stand trial since police swooped on the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich in May 2015 arresting officials from the sport’s governing body and exposing what prosecutors say was a quarter of a century of corruption.

Since then more than 20 senior Fifa figures and marketing executives have pleaded guilty.

The trial, in Brooklyn’s federal court, has gripped world attention as details of the prosecution case have been revealed for the first time. It included details of how senior Fifa figures were promised as much as $1 million to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup.

Ms Mace said the sport of football and its governing bodies were the victims of the conspiracy.

“Each defendant agreed to the bribes and deprived the soccer organisations of the right to his honest services,” she said, explaining how each put their own financial interests first, rather than opening contracts to competition.

The prosecution case was completed on Tuesday and defence lawyers opted not to call any witnesses. The three defence teams have each argued that their clients were innocent bystanders and that the testimony of co-operating witnesses was not to be trusted.

The case has been heard amid the sort of tight security and dramatic twists more usually seen in New York mob cases.

The judge dismissed a juror for sleeping and a defendant was accused of threatening a witness by running his fingers across his throat in a slicing motion.

Prosecutors said they had twice seen Burga make the gesture, striking fear into their witness.

Defence lawyers insisted he had been merely scratching his throat but Judge Pamela Chen ordered him to be placed “effectively on lockdown” under house arrest and denied access to phones and computers.

Last week brought a frisson to the courtroom with the appearance of a former member of the pop group the Jonas Brothers.

Kevin Jonas was called to corroborate the evidence of a government witness who stated that one of the defendants, Napout, had been bribed with tickets to a Paul McCartney performance in 2010. The defence had questioned whether the concert ever took place.

Jonas said he could not testify about Napout or bribes but said he had been at the ex-Beatle’s show at River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires days before a Jonas Brothers show, just as prosecutors described.

“Any time you get to see Paul McCartney it is pretty special,” he said.

His appearance underlines the determination of American prosecutors to make an impact on a scandal that other countries have been unable to tackle. They have presented dozens of witnesses and evidence culled from millions of pages of documents. The case has been followed closely in South America, where the details have sent shock waves through the local game.

A former Argentine football official, Jorge Delhon, who was an executive with the Argentine government's Football For All scheme, killed himself hours after the New York court heard he took $2 million in exchange for the rights to broadcast matches.

Some of most damning evidence came from Alejandro Burzaco, a former marketing executive who has already admitted his role in the conspiracy. He said two defendants, Napout and Burga, were among a powerful clique of officials at Conmebol, football’s governing body in South America, who pocketed six-figure bribes for the right to broadcast games during the Copa Libertadores club competition.

“There is a lot of money in football, and a lot of bad men in the business,” he said.

Marin, 85, is the most high-profile of the defendants. He was president of Brazil’s Football Confederation, the sport’s governing body in one of its most important markets.

Burga, 60, is the former president of Peru’s football federation; and Napout, 59, is the ex-president of Conmebol and of Paraguay's football federation.