French judge accuses seven paparazzi of manslaughter

Photographer took Diana's pulse in wreckage
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Seven men - six photographers and a motorcycle despatch rider - were formally accused of manslaughter yesterday following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and could face up to five years in prison.

One told the investigating judge that, between taking photographs of victims in the wrecked car, he had taken Diana's pulse. His lawyer said that "he wanted to see if she was dead or alive."

Lawyers representing the men rejected the charges as politically motivated, a result of pressure from the French foreign ministry and British government.

William Bourdon, lawyer for Nicolas Arsov of the Sipa agency, said there was no justification for the action. "What is happening is showbiz justice," he said. "It is only the standing of the victims which explains this judicial spectacle."

The seven have also been placed under examination, one step short of a formal charge, for recklessly causing bodily harm and failing to assist victims of an accident. All the offences carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to pounds 50,000.

Five of the men, arrested at the crash scene in Paris on Sunday morning, were freed unconditionally. The public prosecutor requested that two others - Christian Martinez and Romuald Rat - be kept in custody. But the investigating magistrate freed them on pounds 10,000 bail and banned them from press work while the case continued. The two were singled out because they were the first on the scene and, according to police, impeded the rescue efforts. Mr Rat's lawyer, Philippe Benamou, conceded outside the court that his client,had taken pictures of the princess lying mortally injured.

There had been speculation that the manslaughter and injury allegations against the seven would be dropped following the announcement on Monday that the driver of the crashed car had been drinking heavily. But the prosecutor's office and an investigating magistrate, Herve Stephan, decided yesterday that there was a prima facie case which deserved further investigation. The 350-page report presented by police and prosecutors fails to substantiate claims from the Fayed family that the photographers, pursuing the princess's car on motorcycles, were directly responsible for the crash.

Legal experts in France said they doubted whether a manslaughter accusation, based on this evidence, could be made to stick. However, the case for the remaining accusation is much stronger.

Failing to assist accident victims is a criminal offence. There are many eye-witness accounts which describe photographers impeding emergency services and taking pictures of the dying princess in the wreckage at close-range.