In one of the most humiliating events to strike European royalty in living memory, the Infanta Cristina, the once-glamorous little sister of the king of Spain, this week became the first Spanish royal ever to appear in court charged with a criminal act.
The sixth-in-line to the throne made her reluctant appearance on Monday alongside her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, a former Olympic handball player, amidst tight security.
The two stand accused of being part of a network of industrial-level corruption and tax evasion, and of effectively robbing the country of several million euros while it was experiencing its worse financial crisis in decades, which resulted in a national bail-out by the European authorities.
At 50 years old, Cristina is the youngest daughter of former Queen Sofia and King Juan Carlos (who abdicated in 2014 after an embarrassing scandal when he was caught elephant hunting). She now faces charges of tax fraud in a case involving money laundering and embezzlement of some €5.6 million of public funds.
The new king, her brother Felipe, has cut all ties with his once-beloved sister. In a process known in Spanish royal circles as “the firewall,” Felipe has sought to meticulously sever every last thread connecting him with his disgraced sister.
He is doing so with good reason. The great fear for the establishment is that a desperate Cristina, her husband—or one of the 17 other defendants in the case—may resort to claiming that the royal family knew what was going on along. Such a charge, whether proved or not, could topple the monarchy.
Indeed, the extent of what is at stake for the establishment is one of the factors that made so many observers of Spanish society skeptical this case would ever reach court.
It is a sad end to what had once seemed the epitome of a glamorous royal fairy tale.
The young and beautiful couple met in 1996 during the Olympic Games in Atlanta, when Urdangarin represented Spain, and married a year later. The king made them Duke and Duchess of Parma, an ancient title from Mallorca—the region in which, by tremendous irony, they are now standing trial.
They lived, it seemed, a charmed life. Their lavish lifestyle included the purchase of a €7m apartment in Barcelona in 1999, dubbed “the palace” (they now live in Geneva).
The money they are alleged to have embezzled went through the Noos Institute, a non-profit sports organization on which Cristina sat as a board member, and which was directed by Urdangarin.
When the allegations came to light in November 2011, the public quickly turned against them.
Once the old king stepped down, decisions were led by the new queen of Spain, Letizia Ortiz, a former newsreader and journalist whom whiter-than-white Felipe VI married in 2004.
Intensely media-savvy (in 2000 she was the winner of the Madrid Press Association’s Larra Award for most accomplished journalist under 30), Queen Letizia initiated the “firewall” policy, sources say, and it was she who is said to have encouraged Juan Carlos to issue an unprecedented public statement stating that “justice is the same for everyone” as the storm clouds gathered around Cristina.
She has also seen to it that Cristina continues to be as little-identified with the royal family as possible.
Last weekend, for example, she was not invited to attend the 12th day of Christmas celebrations, Día de los Reyes, one of the biggest family days on the Spanish calendar.
Diego Torres, Urdangarin’s former business partner, has previously stated that the king’s brother-in-law never made a move without palace approval. It is alleged that Urdangarin benefited from millions of euros in Balearic government contracts awarded without bids.
Few ever really believed that Cristina would end up in the dock, but a tenacious local prosecutor with republican tendencies has stuck to the case, limpet-like.
And thus it was, with head bowed and lips tightly sealed, Cristina and Urdangarin were among 17 defendants led into court on Monday this week for the opening shots in a trial that might last the best part of a year.
The prosecution alleges that Cristina could not have been unaware of her husband’s allegedly dubious business dealings. She is accused of emptying the accounts of Noos via a company called Aizoon, falsely billing the institute and then passing the invoices off as tax-deductible personal expenses such as renting her own home, coaching services, children’s parties, an African safari, and catering for her birthday.
But her lawyer, Jesús María Silva, described the case against her as “a violation of her fundamental rights” that would have “the most esteemed Spanish jurists turning in their graves.”
Whether or not Cristina can walk away from this case unscathed is a question on which the future of the Spanish monarchy may well hang.