France awaits verdict on 65 defendants in child abuse case

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Verdicts are expected today in the largest, and one of the most horrific, child abuse trials ever conducted in France. After an 18-week trial, and a week in seclusion, the nine jurors and three judges are expected to pronounce today on the guilt or innocence of 65 people accused of prostituting and sexually abusing 45 children aged from six months to 12 years old.

The accused - many of whom deny all the charges - include several parents, and grandparents, who are alleged to have prostituted their children for small amounts of money, food, cigarettes and, in one case, a new tyre.

The jury, and three professional magistrates, have been sequestered for a week while they consider 1,972 counts of rape, sexual abuse and profiting from prostitution against the 65 accused, who include 26 women. The trial, in Angers, on the river Loire, has exposed a marginal world of alcoholism and social and educational deprivation on the outskirts of a pretty town in one of the most visited parts of France. Most of the accused are unemployed. Many are unable to read or write. Several were themselves the victims of sexual abuse as children. A grandfather, who abused his son as a child, is alleged to have taken part in and filmed the sexual abuse of his son's children.

Several of the alleged "clients" of the paedophile prostitution ring have previous convictions for similar offences. Questions were asked during the trial - and will be again after the verdicts - about how the alleged abuse could have continued for three years. Two of the families at the heart of the trial were being visited by social services.

The outcome will also be a test of the ability of the French judicial system to mount mass prosecutions of this kind and bring them to a successful conclusion. A smaller, but similarly harrowing trial of an alleged paedophile ring in the town of Outreau, near Boulogne, last year ended in a fiasco. The evidence, based on statements by children and experts, was flimsy or confused.

In the Angers trial most evidence has come from a handful of defendants, who admitted their guilt and pointed the finger at other family members or "clients". But some changed their story and denied everything during the trial.

During the 93 days of evidence, defence lawyers complained on several occasions that there was little firm evidence against many of the accused. They said that a "mass trial" of this kind threatened a miscarriage of justice.

Maître Pascal Rouiller said: "We fear that there will be a kind of collective guilt ... It will be very hard for the jurors to decide which of so many individuals are guilty or not."