09/20/2012 01:14 EDT | Updated 11/20/2012 05:12 EST

Spain's Operation Puerto doping case will finally go to court nearly 7 years later

MADRID - Spanish authorities gave a warm welcome on Thursday to a legal decision that will see the long-running Operation Puerto doping saga going to court in January, nearly seven years after the case started.

Sports doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, former Liberty Seguros team boss Manolo Saiz and four others arrested in 2006 on suspicion of providing doping services to cyclists will be tried in Madrid's Superior Court from Jan. 28 to March 22. They face charges which could lead to prison sentences of up to two years.

The six accused were arrested in May 2006 after Spanish police raided homes and clinics in Madrid and Zaragoza to uncover bags of blood, blood transfusion equipment and anabolic steroids.

Fifty cyclists were implicated, including two-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, Ivan Basso, Jann Ullrich and Alejandro Valverde. Contador, Basso and Michele Scarponi are among 35 people called to testify as witnesses, according to Thursday's El Pais newspaper, which the court confirmed to The Associated Press.

"That is very good news that we can finally close this episode with the clarity of an independent justice body," Spanish Sports Minister Miguel Cardenal told The Associated Press on Thursday. "It's very satisfactory that our country, like any other, insists in an independent body of justice that will reveal the truth about what happened with this episode."

The sports ministry is bringing the case against the six in conjunction with cycling's governing body — the International Cycling Union, the Spanish Cycling Federation and the Italy's national Olympic committee (CONI).

Puerto has left a stain on Spain's sporting image as it has failed to take action against any of those implicated in the affair. Basso and Valverde — the only Spanish cyclist sanctioned — were among the cyclists who have been banned by CONI, based on evidence gathered by Puerto.

Spanish sports bodies could not use the evidence to ban athletes because of Spanish law, which has since changed.

"You have to respect the rights of those accused, and it's no different here," said Cardenal, who pointed to the drawn-out and complicated Lance Armstrong case as an example. "Would it be better if justice was served much quicker? Sure. But it's better to do things properly rather than poorly."

The accused, who also stand to lose their professional licenses, are charged with endangering athletes' health in their handling of blood samples because they cannot be retroactively charged for a doping crime.

The other four to stand trial are doctor Jose Luis Merino Batres, cycling team managers Jose Ignacio Labarta and Vicente Belda, plus Fuentes' sister Yolanda.


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