Le Drian case: Fraudsters who wore mask of French minister jailed
Two men who impersonated a French minister to trick wealthy people out of more than €55m (£48m) have been jailed by a court in Paris.
Franco-Israelis Gilbert Chikli and Anthony Lasarevitsch conned their victims by impersonating Jean-Yves Le Drian, often wearing a silicone mask.
They denied fraud and usurping Mr Le Drian's identity but were found guilty.
Chikli was jailed for 11 years and fined €2m while Lasarevitsch received a seven-year sentence and a fine of €1m.
As the sentence was handed down, Chikli shouted: "It's a scandal. You should be ashamed."
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The court was told that the Aga Khan – spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims – and Turkish business tycoon Inan Kirac both fell victim to the scam, which took place in 2015 and 2016.
Prosecutors said that in meetings arranged on Skype, one of the fraudsters would wear a custom-made Le Drian mask and sit in a facsimile of Mr Le Drian's ministerial office, complete with flags and a portrait of then-President François Hollande.
They would ask politicians and prominent business leaders to part with money for purported ransom payments to hostage-takers or for anti-terror operations.
Mr Le Drian is now French foreign minister but at the time he was defence minister and not well known internationally – a fact that apparently made the con more successful.
Prosecutors said the gang approached more than 150 prominent figures and organisations including King Philippe of Belgium, Gabonese President Ali Bongo, the CEO of the Lafarge cement company, church leaders and charities. In most cases the targets did not fall for the hoax.
The Aga Khan made five transfers with a total €20m to Poland and China. Three of those payments were frozen but €7.7m was not recovered.
Mr Kirac allegedly wired more than €47m for what he was told was ransom money for two journalists being held hostage in Syria. Château Margaux vineyards lost €3m.
The two suspects were extradited to France from Ukraine in 2017.
Prosecutors say evidence was found on the mobile phones of Chikli, 54, and Lasarevitsch, 35, after their arrest in Ukraine, suggesting that they planned to impersonate Prince Albert II of Monaco next. There were mobile phone pictures of a silicone mask of Prince Albert.
At trial, five other defendants faced lesser charges. One was released and the others received sentences ranging up to five years in prison.
In a French TV interview in 2010, Chikli described previous scams he had been involved in, saying: "You've either got the gift or you haven't, it's like famous actors.
"When it comes to me, you can say that I have a gift."