MADRID (AP) – Spain’s Operation Puerto finally went to trial Monday after a delay of seven years, raising the prospect over the coming weeks of new revelations about doping in cycling following the confession of Lance Armstrong.
Cyclists themselves will not be on trial because of the legal limitations of the case. But there is great interest in the event other sports – particularly soccer and tennis – are mentioned in evidence.
Thirty-five witnesses are expected to testify in a trial due to last until March 22. Beginning early in the day, the courthouse was surrounded by journalists, photographers and TV cameras.
Although no riders will sit in the dock, many will be called to testify as witnesses, including two-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador. He was stripped of a third Tour title after testing positive for clenbuterol.
The trial is limited to doping in cycling, even though athletes in other sports were also reportedly implicated in the discovery of blood bags and other doping equipment in 2006. The World Anti-Doping Agency wants all evidence to be released.
Several hundred blood and plasma bags were seized by police, but the Puerto case has implicated only just more than 50 cyclists, including Contador, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Alejandro Valverde.
Five defendants are to be cross-examined in connection with a sophisticated blood doping network uncovered by police seven years ago.
The first day brought little drama, with the presiding judge hearing only legal arguments and not testimony from defendants and witnesses.
The alleged ringleader, Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, was in court, but judge Julia Santamaria reviewed legal details with lawyers before deciding to leave testimony until Tuesday.
Lawyer Carlos Sanchez represents former cyclist Jesus Manzano, one of the plaintiffs. Sanchez said the opening day was devoted to the presentation of ”individual allegations and pertinent defenses” to determine what arguments can be used in the trial.
Santamaria can rule only on matters covered by Spanish law as it applied in May 2006, when police raids uncovered a mass of blood doping evidence in labs, offices and apartments. The case will focus on whether public health was endangered at any point.
Fuentes allegedly stored bags containing high concentrations of hemoglobin-rich red cells taken from the riders’ own blood so it could be re-injected during competition when they needed a performance boost.
Manzano is a retired cyclist who turned whistleblower after suffering medical problems he said were caused by the doping practices while riding for team Kelme.
”Manzano had to stop being a professional cyclist as a result of these practices,” Sanchez said.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Sanchez said the trial must determine whether the blood extractions, transfusions, storage and transport and the labeling of human plasma and blood could have represented a health risk.
”First there is the question of storage,” Sanchez said. ”Blood must be preserved only in specialized centers. What you can’t have is blood being stored at home in the fridge.”
Also on trial are Fuentes’ sister and fellow doctor, Yolanda; Manolo Saiz, a former ONCE and Liberty Seguros team sports director; and Vicente Belda and Ignacio Labarta, both associated with the former Kelme team.
Jose Luis Merino, another doctor, also was due to be tried, but Santamaria granted him a temporary stay last week after he presented medical reports stating he is suffering from Alzheimer’s.