(Corrects paragraph 2 to say Ivo Rosa is of Portugal’s criminal court for preliminary hearings, not of the highest criminal court in the country)
LISBON (Reuters) -More than six years after his arrest in a major corruption investigation, Portugal’s former Prime Minister Jose Socrates will stand trial, but only on lesser charges of money laundering and falsifying documents, a judge in Lisbon ruled on Friday.
In a decision that sent shockwaves through the country, Judge Ivo Rosa of Portugal’s criminal court for preliminary hearings dismissed the corruption accusations against Socrates, 63, as weak, inconsistent or lacking sufficient evidence, and noted that the statute of limitations had run out on some of them.
“Prosecutors’ arguments are based on speculation and fantasy,” he said while reading out his decision.
Rosa also dismissed tax fraud charges against Socrates, who will be tried on three counts of money laundering worth some 1.7 million euros and three others of faking documents related to service contracts and the purchase and renting of an apartment in Paris.
Socrates has denied wrongdoing, labelling the investigation as politically motivated as he sought to avoid a trial.
Businessman Carlos Santos Silva, a friend of the former prime minister who is accused of acting as a middleman in the deals, will also stand trial. He also has denied the charges.
A socialist who served as prime minister from 2005 to 2011, Socrates was arrested at Lisbon’s airport in November 2014 as part of Portugal’s biggest-ever corruption investigation, codenamed Operation Marquis. It was the first time an ex-premier had been arrested in the country.
He spent months in jail before being placed under house arrest.
In a country notorious for its slow justice system, it took prosecutors three years after the arrest to formally charge Socrates with 31 crimes allegedly committed in the 2006-2015 period.
Those included passive corruption while in office, tax fraud and financial crimes in an alleged scheme involving the disgraced former heads of Banco Espirito Santo (BES) and Portugal Telecom. Ricardo Salgado, former head of the collapsed BES, will be tried for “confidence abuse”. Salgado has denied wrongdoing.
“Something unique happened here today. All the great lies of the prosecution collapsed,” Socrates told reporters, adding that he will fight the remaining accusations. A few protesters shouted “Shame!” as he spoke.
No trial date has been set and both sides are expected to appeal Rosa’s decision.
Socrates stepped down as prime minister in March 2011, during the middle of his second term, after a debt crisis forced him to request an international bailout for the Iberian nation.
A subsequent centre-right government imposed a painful austerity program including tax hikes and wage and pension cuts.
The Socialist Party returned to power in 2015 under current Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who had led the interior ministry for two years during Socrates’ first term in office.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Sergio Goncalves, Writing by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Paul Simao)