Jun 03, 2016

    Messi testifies in tax fraud trial for first time


    ARGENTINA and Barcelona football star Lionel Messi, one of the world's highest-paid athletes, arrived yesterday at a Barcelona court to take the stand for the first time at his tax fraud trial in Spain.

    The 28-year-old, in a black suit and tie, was cheered and jeered as he emerged from a van accompanied by his father Jorge Horacio Messi. They did not speak to reporters.

    The two are accused of using a chain of fake companies in Belize and Uruguay to avoid paying taxes on 4.16 million euros (S$6.4 million) of Messi's income earned through the sale of his image rights from 2007 to 2009.

    Dozens of photographers and onlookers crowded behind metal barriers and a line of police that guarded the entrance of the court to catch a glimpse of the five-time Ballon d'Or winner.

    Most applauded but some jeered and criticised the player.

    "If he cheated, he has to be sentenced no matter how much of an idol and Ballon d'Or winner he is. These are four million euros less to pay for hospitals, schools, firefighters, roads," said Jose Seco de Herrero, 25.

    "Thief!" yelled out one onlooker. "Go play in Panama," cried out another.

    Messi and his father were to be questioned yesterday on the third day of the trial. It is expected to wrap up today.

    After that, Messi will jet off to the United States where Argentina take on Copa America defending champions Chile in their first game of the tournament in California on Monday.

    The high-profile case kicked off on Tuesday without Messi, as he was recovering in his hometown of Rosario in Argentina from a lower back injury he suffered during a friendly match against Honduras last week. Under Spanish law, a defendant is not obliged to attend the full trial if prosecutors seek a jail sentence of less than two years - as is the case here.

    Messi's former tax advisers came out in support of the football star when they took the stand on Wednesday, saying the player never handled his own wealth management.

    He "didn't take any decisions and I didn't see anyone consulting him for anything", Angel Juarez, one of the partners at law firm Juarez Veciana which managed Messi's tax affairs at the time, told the court.

    The Barcelona forward and his defence team have long argued that Messi's father handled the footballer's finances without reporting to him.

    Prosecutors are seeking a jail sentence of 221/2 months for Messi and his father if they are found guilty, plus fines equivalent to the amount that was allegedly defrauded.

    But any such sentence would likely be suspended as is common in Spain for first offences carrying a sentence of less than two years.