PARIS, Jan 21 (Reuters) - The head of French oil giant Total and a former cabinet minister appeared in court on Tuesday on charges related to corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food programme in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Total, Chief Executive Christophe de Margerie, Swiss oil trading firm Vitol and ex-interior minister Charles Pasqua, as well as 16 other individuals, face various charges ranging from corruption to influence peddling or complicity.
The oil-for-food programme operated in Iraq between 1996 and 2003 and was meant to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people by allowing the country to sell some of its oil, despite the embargo imposed after the first Gulf War.
According to a U.N. report, the programme gave rise to graft on an international scale, amounting to billions of dollars.
A French investigating magistrate decided to send Total, Margerie, Pasqua and the other defendants to court against the advice of the French public prosecutor's office, which answers to the justice ministry.
The opening day of the trial was dominated by procedural issues with defence lawyers submitting questions about the constitutionality of the charges. For example, Vitol's lawyer Olivier Metzner said his client had already been convicted over oil-for-food offences in a New York court.
The court will rule on Tuesday as to whether these questions will be referred to the French court of cassation - which could delay the trial - or whether cross-examination will begin.
Total faces charges of bribery, complicity and benefiting from influence peddling, all of which it has denied.
Margerie is accused of complicity in the misuse of corporate assets and risks up to five years in jail and a fine of 375,000 euros ($499,300). He has said he will not comment and Total said on Monday he would not speak to the media during the trial.
Pasqua has denied the charges. ($1 = 0.7510 euros) (Reporting by China Labbe; writing by James Regan; editing by John Irish and Mark Heinrich)