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BARCELONA

Judge rules Leo Messi must face tax evasion charges

Messi missed the first day of this tax evasion trial through injury. He's accused of deliberately hiding image rights income to avoid paying 4.1 million euros of tax

Judge rules Leo Messi must face tax evasion charges
Rodolfo Molina

Leo Messi’s trial for tax evasion started in Barcelona on Tuesday, but the star Barça striker missed attending. Messi said he was suffering from an injury, and presented a medical report to back up his claims. The forward isn’t required to attend every day of the tax evasion trial, but will attend the hearing on Thursday when he testifies in his own defence.

Leo Messi's lawyer, Enrique Bacigalupo

Messi accused of three counts of tax evasion

Leo Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, are accused of three counts of tax evasion by the Spanish tax authorities, with tax of 4.1 million euros between 2007 and 2009 alleged to have been avoided. If found guilty they could face prison, with jail terms of up to 22 months possible. Any such sentence would though likely be suspended as is common in Spain for first offences carrying a sentence of less than two years.

Judge rejects Messi lawyer claims

In the hour long session this morning devoted to preliminary matters, the presiding judge rejected a claim by Messi's lawyer that the tax authorities had infringed on the player's fundamental rights.

Messi's case was that the tax authorities should have brought their case as soon as they discovered any irregularity, rather than asking the player for more information. The judge however held that even if there had been a procedural irregularity, this would in no way affect the criminal proceedings.

Messi recovering in Rosario

The Barcelona player denies the allegations of tax evasion. Despite missing the one hour hearing this morning, his lawyer said that it had been Messi’s intention to attend, but that the injury he suffered playing for Argentina against Honduras meant he was unable to. Messi was still recovering in his hometown of Rosario, 300 kilometres north of Buenos Aires.

Messi holds his back after suffering the injury against Honduras.

The judge asked whether Messi would attend Thursday’s hearing and his lawyer confirmed he would be.

Case for the prosecution

The tax authorities’, who inspected the Messi’s affairs 20 times during a two year investigation, maintain that revenue relating to the striker’s image rights was hidden using shell companies in the UK, Switzerland, Belize and Uruguay.

As a result of investigations into his tax affairs Messi and his father have already paid five million euros in taxes and penalties, where they accepted some of the tax authorities’ findings.

Messi's defence: I knew nothing

The Barcelona forward and his defence team have argued that the player's father handled his finances without reporting to him, and that the striker was not aware of any wrongdoing.

"My dad handled the cash," Messi said in September 2013 when he was questioned by a judge investigating the case at a court in Gavia, a town on the outskirts of Barcelona where the footballer lives.

He reportedly told the judge at that hearing that he never looks at the contracts he signs.

"I signed things, but I never look at the contracts. I don't know what I sign," Messi said according to the daily El Periodico, which got access to his September 2013 statement to the judge.

According to the alleged statement published by the Barcelona daily, the judge showed him several sponsorship contracts that he signed, but he did not remember them.

"This is something that my dad manages. And I trust him. I devote myself to playing football," he reportedly said. "I do what he tells me to do."

The income related to Messi's image rights that was allegedly hidden includes endorsement deals with Banco Sabadell, Danone, Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Procter & Gamble and the Kuwait Food Company.

Messi in the Panama Papers

Questions over the player's finances increased after Messi and his father were among those named in April in reports by international media who received a vast trove of data and documents leaked from a law firm based in Panama.

The two men opened a company in Panama in June 2013, just after the allegations of tax fraud broke, to continue to hide income earned from image rights from Spanish tax authorities, Spanish news site El Espanol reported.

The Messi family acknowledged the existence of the company but they said it was "totally inactive" and never had any funds.

The trial resumes on Wednesday at 10am (CEST) with testimony from the witnesses and experts.

Messi at the Copa America

After winning a league and Cup double with Barcelona, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner is due to join his Argentina teammates for the Copa America in the United States. Argentina take on defending champions Chile in their first game of the tournament in California on Sunday, June 6.