Mass trial 'a pantomime'

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The Independent Online
A MASS trial of Algerian terrorist suspects began in a converted gymnasium near Paris yesterday amid allegations of legal pantomime, judicial megalomania and political interference.

No fewer than 138 defendants accused of plotting or abetting terrorist attacks will appear in the pounds 1m makeshift court. They will be joined by 120 lawyers and 300 police in what is believed to be the largest and most unwieldy trial in France for 50 years. Reading the names of the defendants and the charges took two hours and 45 minutes yesterday.

Most of the defence lawyers walked out last night after failing to halt proceedings. They said it would be impossible for any individual to receive a fair hearing in such circumstances. One lawyer compared the event to a political show-trial worthy of China or the Soviet Union. The judges were unmoved. The defence advocates are expected to return today.

The trial was beset by controversy before it began. Civil- rights watchdogs complained about anti-terrorist laws that allowed 24 of the defendants to be held on provisional charges, without trial, for four years. Local politicians protested at the cost of converting the gym at Fleury-Merogis, 20 miles south of Paris.

Defence lawyers, civil-rights activists and newspapers have questioned the motives of the principal investigating judge, France's terrorist-buster- in-chief, Jean-Louis Bruguiere. It was he who insisted on the epic nature of the trial, hauling in scores of people on vague charges of "association with wrong-doers". Many, say defence lawyers, are no more than relatives or acquaintances of the main suspects.

One lawyer, Philippe Petillaud, said proceedings had been rendered absurd by "certain megalomanic judges." Le Monde said the politically influential Mr Bruguiere's hunger for publicity had overriden the objections of other public officials and trampled the natural conditions of justice.

The trial arises from police raids in 1994 and 1995 which, it is alleged, dismantled an Islamist terrorist network that planned to attack civilian targets in France. It is claimed the network was led by Mohamed Chalabi, 43, previously known to police only as a small-time criminal. When it was the turn of Mr Chalabi's name to be called yesterday, he refused to answer to the description "Algerian". He said he was of "Muslim nationality".

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