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Key testimony delayed on Puerto trial first day

Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes (C) is surrounded by media as he enters a courthouse on the first day of the high-profile Operacion Puerto
Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes (C) is surrounded by media as he enters a courthouse on the first day of the high-profile Operacion Puerto

By Iain Rogers

MADRID (Reuters) - The high-profile and much-delayed trial of a Spanish doctor accused of masterminding a doping ring in cycling got off to an anti-climactic start on Monday when his testimony was postponed until Tuesday.

Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and four other defendants are appearing in a Madrid court almost seven years after police seized anabolic steroids, transfusion equipment and blood bags as part of a probe code-named "Operation Puerto".

The blood bags were linked to a host of professional cyclists including German Jan Ullrich and Italian Ivan Basso, who were both excluded from the 2006 Tour de France.

Basso, a double Giro d'Italia champion, is due to give evidence next month along with Alberto Contador, the Spaniard stripped of one of his three Tour titles after testing positive for a banned substance.

Amid farcical scenes outside the court on Monday, Fuentes was mobbed by camera crews and photographers as he arrived around 9 a.m. local time.

The dozens of Spanish and international journalists covering the trial were then made to wait some two hours before being granted access to the court building.

Judge Julia Santamaria met the defendants and their lawyers for an initial discussion before calling a halt to proceedings at around 2 p.m. and rescheduling Fuentes's testimony for Tuesday morning.

Fuentes left without speaking to the reporters thronging the court entrance, but the lawyer for former cyclist Jesus Manzano, who is to give evidence in the case, did.

"Manzano pulled out of professional cycling as a consequence of these practices," Carlos Suarez told reporters.

"Under examination is the raising of hematocrit levels in blood, and in particular the conservation, extraction, transfusion and the transport of the plasma and the blood. All this carries a risk for the athlete."

WIDER IMPLICATIONS

The trial has attracted such attention because anti-doping authorities are hopeful it will finally lead to evidence of wrongdoing in sports other than cycling being made available.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), who are taking an active part in the trial, were informed that some bags seized contained the blood of athletes from other sports.

Media reports have suggested some of the bags contained blood from soccer and tennis players but requests for access to the evidence were repeatedly denied by the Spanish authorities.

"The Operation Puerto case is the most significant public criminal trial that will address doping issues, which previously were largely handled by WADA arbitrations," said Maurice M. Suh, a former prosecutor and partner with Gibson Dunn's White Collar Defense and Investigations practice, who has advised professional athletes in doping cases.

"Both the breadth of the allegations, and the implications for athletes in other sports besides cycling, signal a significant change in the way doping matters may be handled in the criminal justice systems of various countries," he added.

As Spain's current anti-doping legislation was not in force in 2006 when the police raids took place, Fuentes and his fellow accused, including his sister Yolanda, are being tried for violating public health regulations and the prosecutor has asked for prison sentences of two years.

With Madrid competing with Istanbul and Tokyo for the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games, the Spanish government hopes the trial will help to dispel the impression that the Iberian nation has been soft on doping, particularly in cycling.

Due to end in mid-March, it will put cycling's problems with illegal drug use back in the spotlight days after American cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted doping on each of his seven Tour de France victories.

(Additional reporting by Silvio Castellanos; Editing by Clare Fallon)

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