Puerto hearing could see dozens of riders testify

Fuentes, Saíz facing two-year jail terms as Operacion Puerto case finally goes to trial

LEON, Spain (VN) — More than seven years after Spanish police uncovered one of cycling’s most extensive doping rings, defendants in the infamous Operación Puerto will finally see their day in court.

Hearings are set to begin January 28 in a Madrid courtroom and are scheduled through March 22.

The trial will push the salacious doping revelations back onto front pages in Spain and touch scores of active riders among the 54 cyclists initially implicated.

At stake are possible two-year jail terms for six defendants, including alleged ringleader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes and former ONCE and Liberty Seguros sport director Manolo Saíz.

The presiding judge, however, will only consider issues relating to existing Spanish law at the time of the May 2006 police raids of offices and apartments in Madrid, Zaragoza and El Escorial.

That means the question of doping will not be directly addressed by the hearings because a law passed by Spanish authorities in the wake of the Puerto scandal that criminalized doping in sport was not yet on the books.

Instead, judge Julia Patricia Santamaría will only deliberate charges of “endangering public health.”

That stipulation has frustrated officials from the outset of the Puerto scandal, when Spain’s Guardia Civil uncovered Fuentes’ elaborate blood-doping ring that spilled across Europe.

Despite being handcuffed by Spanish judges, who tried on several occasions to close the case without prosecution, the UCI, along with the World Anti-Doping Agency and Spanish prosecutors, pushed to keep the case alive.

Last fall, a court date was eventually settled for later this month, perhaps signaling the beginning of the end of the long Puerto saga that rocked cycling.

While evidence initially pointed to a doping conspiracy thought to include athletes across several sports, including tennis, athletics and soccer, the judge formerly handling the case centered the investigation only on cycling.

Joining Fuentes and Saíz as defendants are José Luis Merino Batres and Yolanda Fuentes, both licensed medical doctors, and Vicente Belda and Ignacio Labarta, both associated with the former Kelme team.

Merino Batres was a licensed hematologist and ran one of Spain’s largest blood transfusion centers in Madrid while Yolanda, Fuentes’ sister, helped with transfusions and worked as a team doctor at Kelme/Comunidad Valenciana.

Alberto León, who was detained in the initial raids in 2006 and was considered a runner of sorts for Fuentes, committed suicide in January 2011 by hanging himself after being linked to another Fuentes scandal dubbed Operación Galgo in 2010.

The Puerto scandal rocked cycling and implicated 54 riders from more than a half-dozen teams, including nearly the entire rosters at both Liberty Seguros and Comunidad Valenciana (ex-Kelme) as well as superstars Ivan Basso, Tyler Hamilton, Frank Schleck and Jan Ullrich.

Police raids uncovered an elaborate doping ring that included code names, refrigerators stuffed with numbered blood and plasma bags as well as a cornucopia of performance-enhancing products, such as EPO, testosterone, steroids, human growth hormones and other substances in offices and labs in Madrid.

The scandal quickly exploded across headlines worldwide, with the Spanish daily El País having access to the salacious details outlined in a 500-page police dossier.

The fallout was quick. Comunidad Valenciana saw its invitation to the 2006 Tour de France revoked. Riders who later became known as the “Puerto Nine” were barred from starting the 2006 Tour.

Among the nine were Ullrich and T-Mobile teammate Oscar Sevilla, Ivan Basso (ex-CSC), Francesco Mancebo (ex-Ag2r) and Joseba Beloki, Isidro Nozal, Allan Davis, Sergio Paulinho and Alberto Contador (all ex-Astana-Wurth).

According to media reports in Spain, scores of riders, perhaps up to three dozen, could be called as witnesses, both for the defense and prosecution.

Among those expected to take the witness stand are active and former racers who received racing bans, including Basso (Cannondale), Michele Scarponi, now sidelined by Lampre for links to Italian trainer Michele Ferrari, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Jorg Jaksche and Jesus Manzano, both retired.

Contador, in an interview with the Spanish daily MARCA over the weekend, confirmed that he would appear as a defense witness. Unable to link the initials “AC” found in documents and files used by Fuentes to Contador, a judge previously residing over the case cleared Contador’s name.

Contador, who denies working with Fuentes, told the paper he would provide testimony via video and would not be appearing in court.

Manzano — a former Spanish pro on Kelme who was a whistleblower in a series of explosive 2004 interviews with the Spanish daily AS — will be one of the key witnesses for prosecutors trying to prove that blood bags were kept in unsafe conditions and that the injections provided a health risk.

Manzano collapsed during stage 7 of the 2003 Tour following a transfusion of what was believed to be tainted blood. Manzano is expected to outline what he experienced during his near-death experience with the botched transfusion.

Defense lawyers, according to court documents cited in a report by AS, are taking a unique tact. They do not deny that the transfusions occurred; instead, lawyers will argue that Fuentes and his cohorts used the best available refrigerators, blood bags and centrifuge machines on the market.

Whether the real story ever comes out remains to be seen. Judges in Spain have tremendous autonomy to control the breadth and direction of testimony in court proceedings.

A lot might depend on how much the witnesses are willing to offer. Many of the doping practices have already been outlined, either via lengthy interviews or books from former Fuentes clients like Jaksche and Hamilton. If the court lets them talk, however, there might be some new revelations after all.