Uproar over `lazy' judge in Aids trial

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The Independent Online
THE HIGH-PROFILE trial of a former prime minister and two ex- ministers for failing to prevent Aids from being passed on by French blood banks is threatening to subside into chaos and farce.

The week-old trial has turned into a media witch-hunt, not against the accused but against the presiding judge. He has been accused by all sides of incompetence, laziness, arrogance, bad manners, laxity towards the accused, making jokes in bad taste and using language more usually associated with the far right.

The president of the court, Christian Le Gunehec, 68, a former appeal judge who has never presided over a trial before, has hinted that he might stand down if the complaints continue. He attributes his difficulties not to his own failings but to the feverish media expectations of the trial, the first of its kind before a new, part- political, part-judicial court.

"This trial is in public. But it is not made for the public," he said at one stage - a remark that was taken as further evidence of his arrogance. Doubts about Mr Le Gunehec's command of the detail of the proceedings were compounded by a question he whispered to a fellow judge, while forgetting to turn off his microphone: "Remind me, who is Garretta?"

Dr Michel Garretta is the man at the centre of the whole affair: the former head of the French state blood service, who has already served a prison sentence for allowing plasma contaminated with Aids to be given to haemophiliacs.

On another occasion, the judge used the word "Sidaique" for "Aids victim" (after the French acronym Sida). This is a dismissive and insulting word used only by the far-right National Front. The next day he made a doubtful joke about heroin addicts and Haitian homosexuals but most damningly of all, according to lawyers for the victims, Mr Le Gunehec has given an easy ride to the three accused, and especially to the former Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius.

Mr Fabius and two of his former colleagues are accused of manslaughter. It is alleged they delayed the systematic testing of donors' blood for five critical months in 1985 to allow a French firm to complete its development of testing equipment. An alternative was already available from the United States.

In a two-hour rebuttal of the accusations last week, Mr Fabius denied he was even aware of these commercial considerations. He said he had done all he could to bring forward the testing of donor blood and save lives. He gave a convincing performance but critics pointed out he was given a free run. The president of the court, the only person able to do so, did not interrupt him once to ask a question or challenge his assertions.

Part of Mr Le Gunehec's problem is that there is no precedent in France for a trial of this kind. It is being heard by a new court -- the "Cour de Justice de la Republique", in which erring ministers are tried by a panel of three judges and 12 fellow politicians. The criticism of Mr Le Gunehec has come partly from the media and partly from victims and their families. But it has been fed, anonymously, by the politician-judges sitting alongside him.

Relations between the court president and the politician-judges came to a head at the end of last week at a private meeting, in which the MPs strongly advised Mr Le Gunehec to spend the weekend catching up on his homework.