Those 200 blood bags linked to the Operación Puerto doping scandal might finally see the light of day.
The long, sometimes never-ending legal wrangling over the Operación Puerto doping scandal took a new turn Tuesday when a Spanish appeals court absolved five people convicted in a 2013 trial, yet ruled to release blood bags and other evidence to anti-doping authorities.
On Tuesday, a Spanish appeals court absolved Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, former sport director José Ignacio Labarta, and three others of all charges. The court ruled that their doping activities did not represent criminal conduct under the laws in place at the time of the May 2006 raids.
More importantly, however, the appeals court overturned a lower court’s ruling to destroy evidence, and instead ruled to hand over police evidence to anti-doping authorities in Italy, as well as the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency, opening the door for possible disciplinary sanctions for those involved in the decade-long doping scandal.
“The stated aim is to fight doping,” the court said in a statement, adding that there was “a risk that other sportspeople could be tempted by doping.”
There could be as many as 40 athletes linked to the blood bags, most of them thought to be cyclists, but only a handful have ever been identified or sanctioned — among them are Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde and Jan Ullrich. The doctor, however, admitted during the trial to have worked with soccer players, tennis players and boxers.
But will Tuesday’s court ruling be too late?
The WADA code has a 10-year statute of limitations on doping offenses, and Tuesday’s ruling came just weeks after Puerto’s decade-long window closed. There could be room for some wrangling on that question, but there was no word yet from WADA or other anti-doping authorities on what might happen next.
WADA, UCI react
On Tuesday afternoon, WADA said it was “pleased” with the appeals ruling, adding it will consider its legal options, but did not directly address the issue of statute of limitations or whether it could possibly pursue sanctions.
“WADA acknowledges the Madrid Court of Appeal for having reached the decision to provide anti-doping authorities with this crucial evidence,” said WADA Director General, David Howman. “We are dismayed that it took so long to receive the decision, but we will now partner with the other parties that have been granted access [to the blood bags], to determine our legal options vis-à-vis analysing the blood and plasma bags.”
The UCI echoed those sentiments, saying it would meet with its fellow organizers to see if it’s possible to connect the blood bags to cyclists, some of whom who could still be active or working as sport directors and other posts within the peloton.
“The UCI applauds this decision,” said UCI president Brian Cookson. “Although it is regrettable that we had to wait this long, in the end the message sent is clear.”
The UCI also said in a statement it will “partner with WADA, the RFEC, Agencia Española de Protección de la Salud en el Deporte (AEPSAD) and CONI, to determine the legal options available with regards to analysing the blood and plasma bags; and, where applicable, pursuing anti-doping rule violations.”
More than 200 bags of hemoglobin and blood extractions have been kept in a freezer in Barcelona for more than a decade as lawyers on both sides made legal arguments. At the time of the raids in May 2006, Spain still did not have a federal anti-doping law in place (it would be later approved in the fall of 2006), so that meant there was little for prosecutors to go with in trying to press for charges.
So all the evidence gathered in police raids — in addition to blood bags there were diaries, calendars and other information outlining who took performance-enhancing drugs when, where, and how often — was kept under lock and key as the legal tug-of-war played out in Spanish courts. In fact, courts twice tried to close the case because judges ruled there was no legal wrongdoing in the case.
Finally, in 2013, a Madrid court agreed to hear testimony on the case, eventually handing down sentences under the concept of “endangering public health” against Fuentes, Labarta, ex-Liberty Seguros manager Manolo Saiz, ex-Kelme director Vicente Belda, and Yolanda Fuentes (Eufemiano Fuentes’ sister and also a doctor). All five were acquitted Tuesday, and the court said there could be no more appeals.
More to follow.
AFP contributed to this report.