BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – The corruption trial of former FIFA officials in New York took a dramatic turn Wednesday when federal prosecutors accused one of the defendants of having twice menaced a witness by making a slashing motion across his throat.
Manuel Burga made the gestures once on Tuesday and again Wednesday morning, the government said, asking the court to remand Burga into custody for the safety of the witness, Alejandro Burzaco.
The former president of Peruvian soccer from 2002 to 2014, Burga was arrested in 2015 while serving on the development committee of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. One of 40 individuals indicted as part of the FIFA investigation, Burga is on trial alongside Juan Angel Napout, the former president of the South American soccer confederation Conmebol, and ex-Brazilian soccer head Jose Maria Marin.
Their trial kicked off Monday and Burzaco has been one of the first witnesses to testify. Prosecutors brought Burga’s gestures to the attention of U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen after the jury was excused Wednesday, and the parties discussed the issue again this morning before the jury was called in.
Judge Chen seemed skeptical of the explanation by Burga’s lawyer, Florida criminal defense attorney Bruce Udolf, that his client has a “dry skin condition” and was scratching.
“One could certainly interpret it as a threatening motion,” Chen said this morning, describing her review of courtroom surveillance footage.
Gesturing at her own neck, Chen said the footage shows Burga’s “straight and flat” hand moving “perpendicular” and “back and forth” across his neck.
In discussing that footage Wednesday, however, Chen said the video does not resolve the question of what the gesture was but that Burga can be seen gesturing “around his throat area” while looking at Burzaco as the witness entered the courtroom.
Udolf told Chen on Thursday he wanted to see “all the tapes.”
“We have reason to believe” Burga made the hand motion “multiple times over the course of the trial when there was no witness,” Udolf said.
No tapes were shown in open court.
One of Udolf’s co-counsel told Chen she gave Burga some cortisone cream Wednesday, but could not say exactly when. Burga apparently had a rash on his leg.
“He was scratching himself while we were at the sidebar,” she said.
“To the extent your client is claiming he has a skin condition,” said Chen, “is there any evidence?” Chen conceded that she is not a doctor, but that, as to observations of a skin condition, it was “not apparent that that is the case.”
Chen decided not to remand Burga, calling prison a “significant encumbrance,” but she did speak of tightening his house-arrest restrictions, essentially putting him on lockdown with no computer or phone access. A representative from pretrial services proposed keeping Burga home on weekends. He said if they confiscated Burga’s cellphone, he would be harder to monitor with GPS. Chen said she would finalize her decision Thursday afternoon.
The judge also noted that she is exercising extra caution in this trial given the death of Jorge Delhon on Tuesday, the same day Burzaco testified that Delhon received bribes.
Officials in Buenos Aires announced Tuesday night that Delhon, an Argentine lawyer and former football official, had killed himself. Chen cautioned the court Wednesday that Delhon’s death had been billed as a suicide, but that no one knows “for sure.”