French Aids blood scandal trial falls apart in absurdity

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE the trial at the end of Alice Through The Looking Glass and add a further distorting mirror of absurdity.

Alice's trial was pre-programmed for conviction. Not this one: the prosecution pleaded for the defendants to be acquitted. One of the chief witnesses contradicted all documented facts, without being challenged. The presiding judge seemed never to have read any documents at all. Another judge fell asleep. The principal defendant made an eloquent two-hour speech, without rebuttal or questioning.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the manslaughter trial of former French prime minister Laurent Fabius and two former ministers for their connection to the scandal of Aids-contaminated blood transfusions, which ends on Tuesday, was pre-programmed for acquittal.

A whitewash? Possibly. It is also possible that the defendants, certainly Mr Fabius, were innocent as charged. The scandal is that the trial - the first of its kind before a bizarre quasi-political court, especially created for this case - did nothing to elucidate the facts of what happened when a horrific new ailment, political influence and French commercial interests collided 14 years ago.

The trio were accused of bowing to commercial pressure to permit Aids- infected blood to remain in use in the French health service for five months after the mortal danger to transfusion patients was established in March 1985. The two ex-ministers, both now retired, were also accused of allowing the French blood transfusion service to use up old stocks of blood products for haemophiliacs, even though it was known they were contaminated by HIV.

As a direct result of the delay, it is alleged by the families of victims, up to 500 people died and hundreds of others are still suffering from the effects of HIV. But on Tuesday the acquittal of all three ministers on all charges seems inevitable. The press and public verdict on the court and the trial will be far more severe. The news magazine l'Express has dismissed the proceedings as "surreal, a mixture of startling incompetence and ... shameless manipulation of public opinion".

An American company, Abbott, was already marketing the equipment needed to test the blood but, it was alleged, the French government came under intense pressure to refuse to authorise the US product and allow time for a French company, Diagnostics Pasteur, to develop a rival test. The implications for worldwide sales were huge.

Ample evidence exists that the firm did campaign for a delay in systematic Aids testing to allow time for it to perfect its product. There was no direct evidence that the accused ministers were aware of this, although senior officials evidently were.

Argument never reached this point. The Cour de Justice de la Republique, a mixture of politicians and judges sitting in a conference centre, was told that the campaign to delay the tests never existed. Jean Weber, head of Diagnostics Pasteur at the time, told the trial on oath that his company's test had been ready in April 1985. There was no campaign for a delay. Time was lost for purely budgetary reasons within the French health service.

Memos and letters from the time, including several signed by Mr Weber, tell a quite different story. Some, unaccountably, were not presented to the court; others were. Either way, the court president - an appeal court judge who had never run a trial before and often seemed clueless in this one - failed to confront Mr Weber with this contradiction. Collapse of prosecution case.

However, the affair is not over. An investigating magistrate is expected this week to recommend that criminal charges of "poisoning" should be brought against a number of other people involved, including Mr Weber of Diagnostics Pasteur.