French courts summon blood scandal ministers

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The Independent Online
FRANCE'S scandal over contaminated blood, arising from the distribution of Aids-tainted blood products to haemophiliacs in 1985, has entered a new phase with summonses - which are likely to lead to criminal charges - sent to Laurent Fabius, the prime minister at the time, and two of his ministers.

Mr Fabius, Georgina Dufoix, the then social affairs minister, and Edmond Herve, the then junior health minister, have been ordered to see an examining magistrate next week. This followed moves by haemophiliacs' associations to have them charged with 'complicity to poison'. The charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

If the ministers are charged, their cases will be handled by the Court of Justice of the Republic. This was set up last year to deal with the prosecution of ministers for offences committed in office.

Already, four senior doctors have been found guilty of offences connected with the distribution of blood concentrates. Two of them served prison sentences.

They were accused of knowingly allowing the use of unheated concentrates, drawn from thousands of blood donations and therefore certain to be contaminated with the HIV virus, until October 1985, although products which had been heated to kill HIV had become available. Half of France's 2,500 haemophiliacs, all men, were infected with HIV and some of them passed the virus on to others.

Now, wider issues - of the time taken to set up an Aids-testing system and of contamination by transfusion - have been added to the dossier of charges. Mr Fabius made the introduction of Aids- testing for blood donors a priority when he headed the government.

The main trial of the four doctors took place in 1992, with a lengthy appeal last year upholding the jail sentences on Michel Garretta, the former head of the National Blood Transfusion Centre, and Jean-Pierre Allain, the centre's former head of research who is now professor of transfusion medicine at Cambridge University.

Last month, Garretta and Allain, who had both been found guilty of fraud under articles of the criminal code more usually applied to selling rotten food, were charged additionally with poisoning.

Allain, who was released from jail a few days later after serving just over half of his two-year sentence, was forbidden from leaving the country, meaning that he cannot return to his Cambridge post for the time being.

In addition, Bahman Habibi, a third transfusion service doctor who had been charged, was also accused of poisoning.

The extension of charges to the ministers is a victory for the haemophiliacs' associations which have long sought to extend the case to politicians. Mrs Dufoix angered the French public by saying in a television interview that she felt 'responsible but not guilty' for what had happened.

Mr Fabius said after receiving his summons that he hoped 'justice will carry out its duty and establish the truth clearly'. Mr Herve's defence has always been that the decisions were taken on the advice of the country's leading specialists.

Even if the ministers are charged, the case will take at least a year before coming to court. In the meantime, charges can be dropped without explanation. If the Court of Justice does eventually meet to try them, it will consist of a 15-member panel of judges and parliamentarians.