Spain's Princess Cristina, husband suffer downfall

Spain's Princess Cristina, husband suffer downfall

MADRID - A beaming Princess Cristina and her new husband the six-foot six-inch Olympic athlete Inaki Undangarin waved from an open-top Rolls-Royce to crowds of well-wishers on their wedding day on October 4, 1997.

Dressed in a brilliant white designer gown and crowned with a diamond-studded, 19th-century Russian tiara borrowed from her mother, then queen Sofia, the princess's wedding in Barcelona seemed to encapsulate the popularity of the Spanish monarchy.

As Cristina, a sister of the new King Felipe VI, and her husband now face the threat of a corruption trial in a scandal that has outraged many Spaniards, their fall from grace could hardly be more dramatic.

After her marriage, the Infanta Dona Cristina Federica of Bourbon and Greece, a keen skier and sailor who represented Spain in the sailing team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, became a darling of the celebrity press and won praise for having a salaried job, just like ordinary Spaniards.

Her husband, who became Duke of Palma on his marriage, was a dashing, blue-eyed sporting hero.

He was part of the Spanish Olympic handball team in 1992 in Barcelona and then in 1996 in Atlanta when his team won bronze and he met the princess.

The team would go on to win a second bronze in 2000 in Sydney with the duke as their captain.

'The perfect boy'

Centre-left newspaper El Pais dubbed the duke, born in the Basque Country to a Spanish father and Belgian mother, and the second-youngest of seven children, "The perfect boy".

Those days seem long past.

In one of her last public appearances, on February 8 this year, Cristina, 49, was still smiling even as she entered a court in Palma de Mallorca to answer an investigating judge's questions about suspected tax dodging and money-laundering linked to 46-year-old Urdangarin's allegedly corrupt business dealings.

Cristina, a married mother of four who studied in Madrid and has a masters degree in international relations from New York University, denied detailed knowledge of her husband's affairs, saying she simply trusted him, according to participants at the closed-door hearing.

Now the judge, Jose Castro, has wrapped up his four year investigation by ruling that charges must be pursued against Cristina and Urdangarin. The decision is open to appeal. But if it stands, the princess and her husband would face an unprecedented criminal trial.

The duke, who grew up mainly in Barcelona, is now scorned by Spaniards indignant over allegations that he and his business partner used their non-profit Noos Institute to cream off money from contracts from regional governments intended for staging sports and tourism events.

The corruption scandal sent the popularity of the royals tumbling, and on June 18 the 76-year-old Juan Carlos, widely respected for guiding his country from dictatorship to democracy after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, tearfully abdicated the throne in favour of his son.

'Honest and transparent'

Felipe, 46, launched his reign promising Spaniards an "honest and transparent" monarchy.

Cristina had enjoyed a reputation for a commitment to humanitarian causes, becoming an honorary president of a Spanish commission of UNESCO.

But "she is enormously competitive and obstinate," said Andrew Morton, a British royal affairs specialist who wrote a book on the female members of Spain's royal family.

The princess works for a charitable foundation run by La Caixa bank and oversaw its social programmes from Barcelona until the foundation posted her to Geneva last year.

The couple own a Barcelona mansion which reportedly cost around six million euros (US$8 million). It has since been impounded by the courts.

Cristina's lawyers say she is innocent of the accusations.

"When one person is in love with another, she trusts, has trusted and will carry on trusting that person come hell or high water," said one of her lawyers, Jesus Maria Silva.

The duke, too, denies wrongdoing.

Now Felipe has taken the throne, Cristina no longer represents the crown as part of the official royal family, which under Spanish law includes only the king, his spouse, his immedate forebears, his descendants and the crown prince.

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