London • The independent panel investigating doping in cycling hopes the chance for reduced bans and even immunity will encourage witnesses — including Lance Armstrong — to come forward.
Tasked with shedding more light on the sport’s tainted past, the three-man commission, which is also investigating whether cycling’s governing body colluded with Armstrong, has the power to propose reduced sanctions against testimonies.
It has been set up with the approval of the World Anti-Doping Agency and will be able to seal deals with cheats offering valuable information.
"The reduced bans will obviously apply to people who have not been already sanctioned," commission chairman Dick Marty told a conference call on Tuesday, adding that immunity could also be granted in some cases if the information is of "great importance."
Armstrong has already been banned from Olympic sports for life but can still hope his case will be reviewed if he gives substantial information to the panel based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
"For those who have already been punished and are still willing to give important information, the commission can advise the competent authorities to reconsider and shorten their bans," Marty said.
The panel, which had a UCI-funded budget of 3 million Swiss francs ($3.35 million) was a key element in the manifesto of Brian Cookson, who was elected UCI president last year after defeating Pat McQuaid. It started its work on Tuesday with the aim of producing a comprehensive report within a year.
"It’s not just about learning from the past, it’s also learning lessons for the future so we don’t make the same mistakes," Cookson said.
The commission’s main job is to determine how the culture of doping was able to flourish within cycling and to "discover the main providers and facilitators of doping in cycling" since the Festina affair in 1998.
Armstrong has said he would cooperate with any international commission on doping in cycling. He has so far refused to provide sworn testimony to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, whose detailed report in 2012 of drug use by Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team led to him being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.
Cookson did not say whether Armstrong or former UCI presidents Hein Verbruggen and McQuaid had been contacted by the commission but added they would be more than welcomed.
The UCI and Verbruggen have been accused of protecting Armstrong and helping cover up his doping. The American might be interested in cooperating after telling a British newspaper last year that Verbruggen helped him cover up doping at the 1999 Tour de France. Verbruggen dismissed it as a "ridiculous story."
"There will be an invitation to anyone who comes forward," Cookson said. "To anybody, Lance Armstrong or anybody else. Please come forward and offer your information to the commission. ... This is a window of opportunity."
Both Marty and Cookson said confidentiality will be granted to witnesses but all the criminal offenses compiled will be transmitted to the relevant authorities, whichever the country. They added that negotiations will take place with possible witnesses ahead of their testimonies in order to determine if the information they can provide justifies a reduced ban.
"There can be preliminary discussions but until the evidence has been heard it is impossible to determine the amount of sanction reduction," Cookson said. "The reduced sanctions will only apply for the period that the commission is operating, and the danger is other people will come forward. If anyone has something to hide now is the time to come forward and tell all of the truth before someone else comes and tells the truth about your activities."
The other members of the commission are German anti-doping expert Ulrich Haas and Peter Nicholson, a former Australian military officer and war crimes investigator.
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