Human rights `breached by French laws'

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The Independent Online
FRANCE'S SWEEPING anti-terrorist laws breach basic human rights and should be repealed, according to a report prepared by a British lawyer for an international rights group.

The report says the laws give a small group of investigating magistrates excessive powers of detention without charge; that they lead to inordinately long investigations, which trample on the basic rights of defendants; and that they allow the arrest of the most tenuous associates of alleged terrorists on almost no evidence whatsoever.

The British lawyer partly responsible for the report, Michael McColgan, said he was "astonished" by the draconian character of the French laws, which could be compared only to those he had investigated in the Third World.

He and his Italian colleague. Allessandro Attanasio, said that the laws - and their implementation by an anti-terrorist cell of four judges - had generated a kind of "theatrical justice", fond of "mass trials".

The whole process seemed to be designed to impress and reassure public opinion rather than tackle the "real perpetrators of terrorist acts".

The report, which was prepared for the International Federation of Human Rights, coincides with the delayed verdict expected today in the trial of 138 people accused of being involved with an Islamist terrorist network.

There were so many defendants in the trial - many of them on the catch- all charge of "association with wrongdoers" - that a prison gymnasium in the Paris suburbs had to be rebuilt to seat all the accused and their lawyers. In the event, most of the lawyers and the minor accused walked out, leaving the giant courtroom empty.

The criticisms in Mr McColgan's report echo many of the complaints made by defence lawyers in this and other trials since the terrorist laws were enacted between 1986 and 1997.

There has been especial criticism of the autocratic behaviour of the chief anti-terrorist judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere.

The report points out that terrorist suspects arrested by Mr Bruguiere and his team spend an average of 14 months - and up to three years - in detention without charge, compared with a national average in all criminal cases of four months.

The findings were welcomed by some French lawyers and human-rights groups but dismissed in anonymous comments to the French press by one of the judges involved as "ignorant" and "excessive".

The unnamed judge accused Mr McColgan in particular of demonstrating "total incompetence" in the French law during his two-month investigation.