Six suspected fraudsters went on trial in Paris on Tuesday accused of a bizarre scam that saw one use a mask to impersonate French minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in order to extort millions of euros from the rich and famous.
The two main suspects are charged with organised fraud and usurping a person's identity in the outrageous scheme that saw them extort more than €50 million from wealthy figures.
The Franco-Israeli pair, Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, are being tried as the alleged masterminds of the group while five others face lesser complicity charges. The seventh suspect did not attend the trial.
Victims of the fake Jean-Yves Le Drian -- now foreign minister but then in charge of defence -- included billionaire spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, who parted with €20 million.
Turkish billionaire Inan Kirac lost €45 million in the scam.
The gang allegedly approached a total of 150 targets - including Gabonese President Ali Bongo, the CEO of the Lafarge cement company and the Archbishop of Paris - though only three fell for the hoax.
Over the phone, the fraudsters reportedly told their targets that the French state needed urgent financial assistance for "secret operations" - usually a ransom to free hostages in Syria or an anti-terror mission.
Financial contributors were promised immediate reimbursement.
To look more credible, the gang sent letterheads from the minister and, in some cases, appeared on Skype with a costume and silicon mask of Le Drian behind a fake official desk with French and EU flags.
'It wasn't me'
As the trial opened on Tuesday, Chikli denied the charges.
"I will prove during the course of this hearing how it is not possible that it was me," he told the court.
Reaching out for his lawyer’s computer featuring the photo of a man wearing Le Drian’s mask, he said: "You have to be blind to not realise that it can't possibly be Gilbert Chikli! "
Chikli was already suspected of inventing a so-called "fake CEO scam", posing as company executives to milk millions from dozens of multinational giants, including Kia Motors, Hugo Boss and Chanel.
Chikli and Lasarevitch were arrested in Ukraine in 2017. Prosecutors say they were then preparing their next scam, involving an impersonation of Prince Albert of Monaco.
The trial is due to continue until February 12.