PARIS – A former French U.N. ambassador who also served as a special adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) appeared before a French judge Wednesday on charges of influence peddling and corruption of foreign officials.
The charges against Jean-Bernard Merimee (search) are part of France's investigation into the U.N.'s Oil-for-Food investigation. Merimee, who was taken into custody on Monday, is suspected of having received kickbacks in the form of oil allocations from the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (search), judicial officials said.
Merimee is now the second senior former French diplomat under investigation. A former secretary-general for the French Foreign Ministry, Serge Boidevaix (search), was placed under investigation last month for suspected influence trafficking and corruption in connection with the case.
The United Nations is backing the French investigation.
"We have made it clear that we support the efforts of national authorities who wish to pursue the activies of their own nationals who may or may not have been in involved in the Oil-for-Food program," said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Magistrate Philippe Courroye, who is leading the French probe, began his work in 2002. In all, 10 French officials and business leaders are suspected of having received oil allocations as kickbacks from Saddam's regime.
Merimee spent Tuesday night in custody, officials said.
Merimee, 68, served as a special adviser to Annan from 1999 to 2002, as ambassador to Italy from 1995-98, and as France's permanent representative to the U.N. from 1991-95.
France's Foreign Ministry distanced itself Wednesday from the former diplomats.
Spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said the probe has "to do with their private activities, begun after their retirement."
He said the ministry reminded them in September 2001 that as former diplomats, they bore "particular responsibilities." The letters also asked them "to make sure that their private activities concerned themselves — and in no case the government."
Merimee and Boidevaix expressed their "full agreement," Mattei said, declining to comment further on the judicial investigation.
The spokesman said he saw "no link" between French diplomats' alleged contacts with Saddam's regime and France's decision not to support the U.S.-led war in 2003 that topped the Iraqi dictator.
"The reasons for which France decided not to participate in the Iraq war were based on our conception of international law, and were amply explained by French political authorities at the time," Mattei said.
French media said alleged French links to the Oil-for-Food (search) affair could harm the country's international reputation.
"France, and its diplomacy, and thus its image, are in the firing line in the great hunt for crooks in the Oil-for-Food scandal," said the left-leaning daily Liberation in an editorial.
The Oil-for-Food program was established in 1996 to provide food, medical supplies and other humanitarian goods for millions of Iraqis trying to cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The program ended with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Saddam manipulated the program by essentially selling oil at a reduced rate to favored buyers, who could then turn around and sell the oil at a hefty profit.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.