Victims' rage at Aids trial verdict

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VICTIMS AND their families reacted with cynicism, outrage but little surprise yesterday when a special court in Paris absolved two former ministers and imposed no punishment on a third for their role in the contamination of French blood banks with the Aids virus in the mid-1980s.

The former prime minister Laurent Fabius was cleared by the semi-judicial, semi- political court, which accepted his claim that he had accelerated, not delayed, the systematic checking of blood stocks for HIV. His former social affairs minister, Georgina Dufoix, was found not guilty of manslaughter and bodily harm but reprimanded for incompetence.

The third defendant, the former junior health minister and Mayor of Rennes, Edmond Herve, was found guilty of failing to prevent contaminated blood- stock samples from being used in two cases. But the Cour de Justice de la Repub-lique, a panel of three judges and twelve politicians hearing its first case, decided no punishment should be imposed.

"Why not give them the Legion d'honneur," shouted Patrice Gaudin, father of two haemophiliac children who died of Aids after being given HIV-infected blood products. Joelle Bouchet, whose son caught Aids in similar circumstances, shouted: "Murderous state. The justice system is its accomplice ... You have blood on your hands, Mr Herve."

The three former ministers were accused of having delayed the systematic checking of blood stocks for commercial reasons from March or April until August of 1985, exposing 300 to 600 people to the Aids virus. About half have since died. The two junior ministers were charged with allowing the state blood service to use old blood products for haemo-philiacs rather than incur the cost of destroying them.

The main case against the ministers rested on the claim that the Fabius government intervened on behalf of Diagonistics Pasteur, a French company struggling to complete its own system for testing blood for HIV. As a result, it was said, the use of a rival American test was blocked and delayed.

All three ministers denied this version of events, as did the man who at the time was head of Diagnostics Pasteur, Jean Weber, despite documentation that he led a successful protectionist campaign through his contacts in the Fabius government.

Victims and their families were outraged that the court made no attempt to cross- examine the accused or witnesses, despite apparent discrepancies in their statements to the court.

Jean-Frangois Mattei, a liberal member of the French parliament, described the trial as a "triple failure - politically, judicially and morally".

The affair is not over. This week an investigative judge is expected to make a much- delayed decision on whether to proceed with criminal cases for "poisoning" against a dozen senior officials also involved in the affair, including Jean-Pierre Allain, then deputy head of the French blood service, who has since become professor of haematology at Cambridge University.