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By Andrew Hood
More than 50 cyclists implicated in Operación Puerto could be hauled before a Spanish court to give testimony, if the prosecution gets its way.
Prosecutors have asked a Spanish judge to call riders connected to an alleged blood-doping ring headed up by Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes to give testimony, Spanish daily El País reported Thursday.
Riders would be required to take an oath to tell the truth in court or face possible perjury charges. Otherwise, riders implicated in the Puerto case are not facing any legal sanctions in Spain because the nation has no anti-doping laws.
More than 50 riders have been linked to the investigation, including Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Oscar Sevilla and Francisco Mancebo. Those four, plus five members of the Astana team, were kicked out of the 2006 Tour de France after police alleged links to Fuentes.
Prosecutors have been trying to entice riders to come forward on their own to provide further evidence against the alleged doping ring, considered now by investigators to involve doctors and trainers in a clandestine operation that extended throughout Europe.
Investigators are keen to gain witness testimony – either voluntarily or court-ordered – because some insiders believe that the existing evidence is not sufficient enough to bring any serious charges against Fuentes and the man alleged to be his accomplice, hematologist José Luis Merino Batres.
Fuentes and Merino Batres could face charges of endangering public health, but so far no charges have been filed from the ongoing investigation.
They were among five people detained by authorities in May after Spain’s Guardia Civil raided apartments, labs and offices involved in the alleged ring.
The paper also reported that German authorities want to travel to Madrid to take DNA samples rom bags of blood linked to former T-Mobile riders Ullrich and Sevilla. They want to test the blood for the presence of banned performance-enhancing drugs and possibly test the DNA against samples taken from the riders. So far, Ullrich’s attorneys have said the 1997 Tour champion will not provide DNA samples to authorities.
Police raids in May found nearly 200 bags of blood, red blood cells and plasma in apartments belonging to Fuentes.
Meanwhile, Italian sport authorities are expected to decide later this month whether there’s enough evidence against Basso, the 2006 Giro d’Italia champion, to open a formal investigation.
Basso has been linked to Fuentes via phone taps and a series of code names Spanish police allege describe the Italian star. He had been scheduled to appear before the Italian Olympic Committee’s anti-doping commission on September 12, but that session has been postponed until September 29.
“I understand the judiciary have changed the date, but I remain respectful and confident as always,” he was quoted as saying by Italian news agency ANSA. “But at the same time I can’t wait to close this matter positively.
“I repeat what I’ve already said: I’m not involved in this business. I’ll keep on saying it. I’m respectful of everybody, but I would like to be listened to and believed.”
If Italian authorities decide there’s insufficient evidence, Basso could be cleared to resume racing immediately, though UCI officials said they could challenge any rulings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) if they believe there is sufficient evidence of organized doping.
The Basso case is a major test in what’s sure to be a long and complicated legal battle for riders linked to the Fuentes investigation.
El Pais also reported that Spanish authorities are also poised to begin investigations into other sports. It has been believed that other sports, such as track and field and soccer, are also implicated in the Fuentes investigation. Until now, authorities have only focused on cycling, prompting calls of unfairness and even cover-up among some quarters to protect the powerful and popular sport of soccer in Spain.