Spain: Princess Cristina to be tried for fraud

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MADRID (AP) — Spain's Princess Cristina was indicted on tax fraud charges Monday — a severe setback to efforts by her brother King Felipe VI to rid the royalty of image problems after his scandal-plagued father abdicated six months ago.

Cristina is the first royal family member in the country ordered to stand trial since the monarchy was restored in 1975.

Judge Jose Castro has spent four years investigating Cristina's husband on charges ranging from money laundering to fraud. He went against a prosecutor's recommendation earlier this month that the 49-year-old Cristina should face only fines and ordered a trial that could see her get prison time of up to four years if found guilty.

Her Olympic handball medalist turned businessman husband, Inaki Urdangarin, faces additional charges punishable by up to 19 years jail time.

Castro's decision sets the stage for a royal trial late next year, just as Spain is expected to see heavy campaigning in national elections that must be called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy by the end of 2015.

After his coronation in June, Felipe pledged to restore public trust in the monarchy. He ordered a palace reshuffle, meaning that Cristina and her sister, Princess Elena, are no longer official members of the royal family. He has also limited gifts that royal household members and employees are allowed to accept and subjected the household's account to external audits that are made public.

Polls have shown that Felipe is Spain's most popular public figure. But royal watchers say his credibility drive would be undercut by the trial for his sister, her husband and 15 others accused of participating in the scheme.

"It's just unfortunate that Felipe is a new monarch. He has not been on the throne for a year but he has this embarrassment," said Joe Little, the managing editor of the London-based Monarchy magazine. "He has tried to build a new, positive image for the monarchy and this is going to set him back in that regard."

Castro set bail for Cristina at 2.7 million euros ($3.3 million) and 15 million euros for her husband. Her lawyer, Miquel Roca, told reporters he would appeal the judge's decisions.

"It's a surprise to all of us and especially her," he said.

Probing suspected abuse of company funds to cover the couple's personal expenses from their Aizoon real estate and consulting firm, Castro compiled detailed lists of alleged examples. They included purchases for the couple's Barcelona mansion, salsa dancing classes and vacations at luxury hotels.

Most news of the alleged excesses emerged while Felipe's father, Juan Carlos was king. And Juan Carlos himself eroded much of the respect he earned in decades on the throne after he went on a secret elephant hunting trip to Botswana at the height of Spain's financial crisis in 2012.

The case involving Cristina centers on allegations that Urdangarin used his Duke of Palma title to embezzle about 6 million euros ($7.4 million) in public contracts through the Noos Institute, a nonprofit foundation he set up with a business partner. The institute allegedly channeled money to other businesses, including Aizoon.

Cristina denied knowledge of her husband's activities in February during an unprecedented appearance before Castro to answer questions.

Prosecutor Pedro Horrach recommended that Cristina should not be indicted but ordered to pay 580,000 euros ($711,000) to cover the amount she could have profited from her husband's alleged illegal dealings.

Castro had the option of accepting Horrach's recommendations or sending Cristina to be tried by a different judge. The trial is expected to take place toward the end of 2015 in Palma de Mallorca, the regional capital of Spain's Balearic Islands, where most of the alleged offenses occurred.

Cristina and her husband moved to Switzerland in 2013, where she works for the foundation of Spain's La Caixa bank, which finances charitable and cultural programs.

Cristina's case is proceeding because a quirk in Spanish law allows non-governmental organizations or individuals to press for charges when officials don't. Her case was driven forward by the anti-corruption group Manos Limpias (Clean Hands).

Her lawyers argued that she should not face a tax crimes trial because the Spanish state was the party harmed by the alleged tax fraud and prosecutors decided she committed no crime.

Ignacio Sanchez, a Madrid-based lawyer for Hogan Lovells International LLP who specializes in white collar crime and fraud, said Cristina's lawyers have several weeks to file their appeal but gave it low odds of succeeding.

"She is probably going to trial and it will be totally public. Everyone will be able to see it," Sanchez said. "This was the worst news she could have received."

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