By Andrew Hood
The slow wheels of Spanish justice are almost grinding to a halt in the never-ending saga of the Operación Puerto blood doping ring.
According to reports in the Spanish media, oral testimony ordered in January of this year by an appeals court likely won’t happen until 2011.
Earlier this year, a Madrid appeals court ordered ruling judge Antonio Serrano to hear oral testimony to further try to determine if any laws were broken under existing Spanish law at the time of the May 2006 raids.
Under the court order, riders allegedly part of the doping ring could be called to court to testify without the risk of legal recrimination. Their oral testimony could only be used against eight defendants arrested as part of the sweeping 2006 police action.
Only eight people, including alleged ringleaders Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes and Dr. José Luis Merino Batres, are facing charges in Spanish courts.
Only a handful of the nearly 60 riders allegedly part of the ring have faced sporting sanctions. Ivan Basso, Jorg Jaksche and Michele Serrano all admitted they worked with Fuentes. German officials have linked Jan Ullrich to the ring while the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned a ban imposed against Giampaolo Caruso.
Alejandro Valverde is appealing a two-year racing ban imposed within Italy by CONI. A hearing before CAS is set for November 16.
When officials from Spain’s Guardia Civil searched labs and apartments in May 2006, Spanish authorities discovered clear evidence of what appeared to be a widespread doping ring.
More than 200 bags of blood and plasma were rounded up, along with scores of other banned doping products. Diaries, phone taps and video surveillance provided evidence to Spain’s Guardia Civil to what indicated an international doping ring spread across Europe.
But the nagging question of legal jurisdiction continues to plague the post-raid legal proceedings.
Serrano has taken an extremely narrow interpretation of how to apply Spanish law to the case, focusing only on the question of endangering public health and ignoring larger questions of doping, which was not illegal under Spanish law at the time of the Puerto raids.
A new, stricter anti-doping law was passed by the Spanish legislature in November, 2006, but the law cannot be retroactively applied to the Puerto case.
Serrano has twice tried to close the case without filing any criminal charges and has refused to broaden the investigation to other possible crimes such as money laundering and tax evasion. Computers, cell phones and bank files, though they remain in court custody, have not been cracked open as part of the investigation.
Analysis of some of the blood bags in 2007 as part of an earlier appeal revealed the presence of EPO, but Serrano ruled that despite the detection of the banned blood booster, levels were not high enough to present a health danger.
Appeals by Spanish authorities, along with the UCI and WADA, have kept the case alive.
The latest delay could mean the judicial process will continue at a snail’s pace, more than five years after the initial raids.
At this rate, many of the 50 or so riders allegedly implicated in the doping ring will be retired by the time the Spanish judiciary finally makes a final ruling.