Operacion Puerto, the biggest ever police investigation against doping in cycling, has ended up in the legal rubbish bin. After 28 months of scandals, leaks and accusations, Spanish judge Antonio Serrano has decreed that Puerto be closed.

Only a last-minute appeal can save Operacion Puerto from becoming dead and buried on a legal front.

During its 28 months of existence, Puerto has had little direct legal effect but the indirect fall-out has been enormous.

It has led to Jan Ullrich and Joseba Beloki retiring early and to a two-year suspension for Ivan Basso. Puerto has also seen Alejandro Valverde subject to constant questioning despite no direct implication, led to accusations against Tyler Hamilton and Santiago Botero and has raised questions about Alberto Contador.

Two teams, Liberty and Comunitat Valenciana, collapsed as a result of the Puerto scandals. Directors such as Manolo Saiz and Vicente Belda have been ejected from the sport. Top riders such as Francisco Mancebo have ended up racing for a fraction of their former wages in small teams in Portugal.

Some 30 other riders have had their careers seriously affected. And the affair rumbles on. CSC-Saxo Bank’s Frank Schleck has just been questioned by the Luxembourg Anti-Doping Agencies because of a payment to Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the centre of the scandal.

Puerto?s indirect effects were considerable, then. But as for those originally charged – Fuentes, his collaborator Jose Luis Merino Batres, Saiz, Belda and the MTB rider Alberto Leon – will walk free. Fuentes, currently working at a health centre in the Canary Islands, can go back to work. Saiz is already working with an amateur team in Santander.

The reason is simple: Spanish law, at the time of the Puerto police raids and arrests back in May 2006, did not penalize doping. The only offence on the books that could be applied in a case like Puerto was a crime against public health.

The ?public health question? was why the case – closed a year back – was re-opened, so the judge could be 100 percent sure the doctors involved had kept the blood from the transfusions – siezed by police in May 2006 – in safe conditions..

The final report produced by the Spanish medical authorities utters stern warnings about the dangers of blood transfusion, and even warns about the conditions the blood bags were kept in. But that report does not allow for the case to find its way back the courts.

Serrano has been harshly criticised for failing to act against Fuentes and company, but the truth is that with the laws he could use he was fighting with one hand tied behind his back.

What now? The evidence from the case – blood bags, ?training plans? and other doping material – will be returned to their original owners: Eufemiano Fuentes.

That evidence cannot, according to Spanish law, be used by other instituations, such as sporting authorities, to penalize athletes. In other words, cyclists suspected of involvement in Puerto cannot now be suspended. They will be able to ride freely, even if they are tarnished by their involvement, alleged or otherwise.

The judge?s final decree does allow for the large numbers of riders and managers affected by the case to sue for damages and compensation. So Puerto may be dead: but a whole new round of legal battles is just about to begin.

RELATED LINKS
Frank Schleck under Puerto suspicion after police raid
Ullrich suspended by T-Mobile
Jaksche lifts lid on Operacion Puerto
UCI creates blood passports
Pound: “Not just cyclists in Operacion Puerto
Fuentes: 51 riders will be questioned