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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

French Legal System Under Attack

I am a Scapegoat for Sexual Abuse Scandal

A young magistrate with the face and haircut of a boy scout became the focus of nationwide attention in France today as he defended his role in a pedophile case that has turned into one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent French history.
France’s main television channels scrapped their usual afternoon programs to show Judge Fabrice Burgaud’s appearance in front of a parliamentary committee inquiring into the affair that has shaken the country’s Napoleonic legal system to its core.
"I do not pretend to have carried out my investigation perfectly," he said. "Could I have acted differently? With the benefit of hindsight, certainly. Did I make mistakes? Probably. Who does not? What examining magistrate does not?"
The 34-year-old judge has come to symbolize the failings of French criminal justice after leading the investigation into what he mistakenly thought was a vicious child abuse network in Outreau near Calais in northern France.
The case echoes the Cleveland scandal in Britain, when 121 children were removed from their families in 1987.
In his first posting after leaving the French National School for Magistrates, Judge Burgaud imprisoned 18 people, including a bailiff, a taxi driver, a bakery owner and a priest, on suspicion of sexual assault amid claims of orgies, bestiality and bodies buried in a Belgian farmyard.
But three years later, 13 of the defendants were acquitted when it became clear the supposed pedophile ring had never existed.
‘L’affaire Outreau’ was in fact a sordid but minor case involving two couples. The child abuse network had been invented by a deeply disturbed child unable to distinguish fact from fiction after being raped by his mother and father.
One defendant, François Mourmand, whose innocence was later demonstrated, committed suicide in jail. Another, Alain Marécaux, tried to take his life last month, but was saved.
In a personal letter of apology to the families, President Chirac described the affair as a "disaster" for French justice.
Described by his critics as arrogant and inflexible, Judge Burgaud has received hate-mail and death threats following the appeal hearing last year.
But today he looked frail, pale and unsure of himself as he sat in front of the committee at the French National Assembly in a grey suit and blue tie.
"I am terribly shocked to have been presented as a machine who applies the law without humanity," he said in a hesitant voice. "I am not the person who has been described by some of the people who have given evidence here."
But he added: "I believe I carried out my work honestly."
He denied accusations he had carried out a biased investigation, eliminating evidence favorable to the defendants and manipulating witnesses to support the charge of child abuse.
Judge Burgaud said his work had been checked and approved by other magistrates, lending weight to claims that he has become the scapegoat for a wider failure that demands a radical overhaul of the French legal system.
After M Burgaud's testimony in Parliament will be several of the 13 victims in the Outreau case, who have accused the magistrate of being naively fixated on their guilt, failing to listen to arguments in their defense and abusing his power under the judicial system.

Examining magistrates are called in when prosecutors decide that a crime has been committed and needs investigation. Their broad powers allow them to order police raids, call on expert witnesses and question witnesses and suspects as they decide whether a prosecution is warranted.
But under the Napoleonic Code, the examining magistrates act as both prosecutors and defenders - they are meant to uncover evidence not just of guilt but of innocence and to weigh both up as they recommend charges. The Outreau victims say that was not the case with M Burgaud.
One former suspect said that he spent 11 months behind bars before being granted access to a lawyer. Others complained of being slapped, threatened with violence or forced to stand up during police questioning.
The MPs' remit is to consider the implications of the case for France's legal system but already one of the country's best known investigating magistrates has called for major reforms.
Renaud van Ruymbeke, who specializes in financial cases and led investigations into the brother of Osama Bin Laden and into the US oil services company Halliburton, said "we have to start over again with our system" and called for a British or American model where judges are neutral arbiters of guilt.
"Why? Because an investigating judge wears a double hat - both an investigator and an arbitrator," M van Ruymbeke told Le Monde last month.