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Testimony Begins In Historic Trial Of Spain's Princess Cristina

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A member of Spain's royal family is on trial right now. Princess Cristina is the King's sister, and she's among a large group of defendants in a tax fraud case. Testimony began today, and it's completely consuming people's attention in Spain. Lauren Frayer is covering the trial.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The first of 18 defendants took the stand today. Jose Luis Ballester is a childhood friend of the royals. He was an Olympic sailor. He won gold in Atlanta where Princess Cristina's husband won bronze in handball. All three were friends, attend each other's weddings and now sit together as defendants in court. Ballester was a government official on the island of Mallorca accused of helping Cristina's husband embezzle $6-and-a-half million of taxpayers' money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "Did you ever feel taken advantage of for your access to power," one of the prosecutors asked Ballester. He hesitates. "Yes, you could say I feel used," he said. He's cut a deal with prosecutors to testify against the others. He describes sealing fraudulent business deals over tennis matches at a royal palace overlooking the Mediterranean. Curious to see it, I ducked out of court, hailed a taxi, and ask the driver to take me to that royal palace, which set the driver off on a rant.

SEBASTIEN ABRAM: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "That palace belongs to the citizens," said taxi driver Sebastien Abram. "It's our public money that pays for them, and then they steal from us." His reaction is typical of people here - incredulous that royals might embezzle and cheat on their taxes. For Spaniards, this trial represents much more than the possibility of seeing their princess go to prison for tax fraud. It's about investigating corruption in Spanish society, says Ana Romero, author of a book about Spain's royals.

ANA ROMERO: It's basically about connections, nepotism, friendships that turn into business. It is the whole way of operating that is on trial, really. It's about politicians doing favors to have power and money and the - it's the very old story. And it's quite sad, actually, what it tells about Spain.

FRAYER: This street through Mallorca's capital used to be called the Avenue of the Duke and Duchess of Palma to honor Cristina and her husband, that is, until they went on trial. Now they've taken down the sign and changed the name. It's just la Rambla, the Avenue, now.

IRENE ALONSO: I'm happy that it is not anymore called like that.

FRAYER: Irene Alonso is a pharmacist on the newly renamed avenue.

ALONSO: But I just think that this is something superficial in order to let people think that they are changing. But in the roots, they are not changing.

FRAYER: She worries that even if a few people go to prison, Spain's elites will go back to their old ways. A recent report by Transparency International says Spain's corruption is getting worse.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting in Spanish).

FRAYER: Outside the courthouse today, there were only two protesters calling for an end to the monarchy. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.