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Spanish doping trial opens with Fuentes at the center

A Spanish court has opened hearings into the 'Operation Puerto' doping scandal seven years after it came to light. Five people have been charged including the suspected ringleader, Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.

The hearings for Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, and four others, opened Monday with the defendants charged with endangering public health for their alleged involvement in the "Operation Puerto" scandal.

The presiding judge heard only legal arguments from lawyers, and the first day of the trial ended without any new revelations about the case. Testimony is to begin on Tuesday.

The alleged doping network was uncovered on May 23, 2006, when Spanish police raided several apartments and a laboratory in Madrid and seized about 200 bags of blood. Police also arrested doctors, sporting directors and trainers suspected of taking part in the scheme.

Several top cyclists, including the Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador, Italian Ivan Basso and Germany's Jan Ullrich were implicated. Contador, a former Tour de France winner, is to be among those who are to testify.

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Fuentes doping trial begins

The other defendants include Fuentes' sister Yolanda, the former Liberty Seguros cycling team director Manolo Saiz, former Comunitat Valencia cycling team chief Vicente Belda and his deputy, Jose Ignacio Labarta.

The defendants have been charged with endangering public health instead of doping because it was not a crime at the time of the arrests. A Spanish anti-doping law was only passed in November 2006. Therefore the prosecution will seek to prove that the blood transfusions put the riders' health at risk.

If convicted the defendants could face two-year prison sentences.

In light of the scandal, Spain now is preparing a new law aimed at harmonizing its legislation with World Anti-Doping Agency's code.

In his written defense, Fuentes said "None of the athletes in this case have been been harmed."

Jesus Manzano, a former cyclist for the Spanish team Kelme - of which Fuentes was then the head doctor - is scheduled to testify on February 11 and is expected to argue the contrary.

Not just cycling?

The investigators' final report contained a list of 58 clients, all cyclists, however initial reports and Fuentes said other athletes from different sports had also been involved. Those statements were later retracted.

When the bags of blood were found, they were labled with code names and some have still yet to be identified.

The proceedings are set to end on March 21, with a verdict expected not before April. However, there will most likely be an appeal.

The trial comes just days after seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong admitted to doping during his cycling career.

hc/pfd (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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