Spanish court stops identification of Operacion Puerto athletes

Court says authorities could only identify those involved in open cases

The names of the owners of the 211 blood bags uncovered as part of Operacion Puerto may never be known after a Spanish court issued a clarification letter earlier this week. A year on from the decision to release the blood bags to the anti-doping authorities, the Provincial Court of Madrid wrote a letter of clarification. It said that the blood bags were only passed over to the authorities to verify if they belonged to athletes with open cases, rather than begin disciplinary proceedings.

The letter comes after Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the centre of the scandal who was accused of blood doping athletes, issued a request for the blood bags be returned to him and that the identities of their owners remain a secret. Fuentes said that the publication of the names "violates the right of privacy and confidentiality derived from the doctor-patient relationship."

While the court denied Fuentes' request for the return of the items, but as there are no open cases the identities of the athletes cannot be made public. The ruling will be a blow to the anti-doping authorities.

Operacion Puerto has been rumbling on since 2006 after police raids on the office of Fuentes. Several cyclists were identified as patients of Fuentes from the documentation kept by the doctor, however, the blood bags uncovered were held as evidence by the Spanish authorities.

Following the Operacion Puerto trial in 2013, where Fuentes was given a one-year suspended sentence and banned from working as a doctor for four years, the court ruled that the blood bags be destroyed. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the UCI and others appealed the decision and eventually won their case in 2016. The original sentence handed down to Fuentes was also overturned. 

Quickly after gaining possession of the blood bags, the owners of each of them had been identified. However, the length of the trial and subsequent appeal meant that the statute of limitation – eight years – had long passed. This left the authorities with a legal conundrum as they could not prosecute any of the athletes.

In their executive committee meeting earlier this month, WADA was urged to continue pursuing the legal possibilities. This latest decision is likely to put a halt to that, and it is unlikely that the identities of the blood bag owners will ever be known.

It's unclear what will now happen to the blood bags. According to the Spanish newspaper AS, there is no appeal process against this decision. However, WADA and Anti-Doping Spain could launch an investigation similar to that undertaken by Richard McLaren – commissioned by WADA to look into the doping scandal that surrounded Russia last year.  

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