Monday, January 03, 2005

 

Throwing the book at 'em, part 17

I sure hope French justice is better than French rationalization.

One of France's top terrorism suspects and five of his alleged accomplices went on trial here Monday, accused of plotting to blow up American targets in France three years ago, a charge that all six men deny.

Jamal Beghal, a French-Algerian suspected of links to the Qaeda terror network, is alleged to have masterminded a radical Islamist cell in southern Paris and a number of its planned operations, including a foiled suicide attack on the American Embassy in 2001. The others, four of whom are also of Algerian descent, are alleged to have helped with logistics and organization.

All six defendants face prison sentences as long as 10 years, if convicted. A verdict is expected on Feb. 16.

I did a little bit of research about the French legal system way back when, but I can't really tell you much about it at this point in time. I work in domestic law, and international law is a totally different ballgame. All I know is my eyes will be glued to the details of the trial, and I'll try to give you as much plain-English about it as possible. I do remember that France uses the Bastille system of law, which means a person is guilty until proven innocent. Also, their equivalent of our District Attorneys are combination investigators and lawyers, who can keep someone locked-up as long as possible if it means they can dig-up evidence to put them away. So in my professional opinion, if these guys are being brought to trial at this point, that means the French have enough evidence to lock them up for a good, long time.

As for the ability to determine when a verdict will be handed down, and to name a specific date, that's a feat that is near to impossible in a trial of this magnitude in one of our courts. This tells me that the trial will be presented before a magistrate, and not a jury, which allows for a set date for the verdict, as well as a time limit for each side (the prosecution and defense) to present their case. One of my coworkers just got back from a law residency in the EU, so I'll make sure to ask her about it tomorrow so I can share the lowdown on the French legal system.

UPDATE - 12:06 AM:

I just dug through my personal library and grabbed one of my few international law books. All of our digital legal research tools, such as LexisNexis and FindLaw only contain domestic law, but Basic Documents in International Law by Ian Brownlie has some wonderful information and cross-references that I followed. Here's a key selection that should clarify things a little bit.

"France's inquisitorial system is very different from the English accusatory one, and some French examining magistrates say that it protects those in power. When a crime is suspected, no investigation may begin without the written consent of a prosecutor. If he decides there will be an investigation, he appoints an examining magistrate. The French examining magistrate has nothing in common with the English magistrate (an unpaid justice of the peace who ensures the proper functioning of the law at its primary level). The French magistrate is a legally trained "detective" with enormous power. He or she can summon anyone in the land, except the president, and keep a suspect in prison for months without trial. (It was revelations about the state of the French prisons experienced by members of the elite awaiting trial in the late 1990s that helped to tip public opinion against the magistrates.) The constitution demands that the examining magistrate be independent. But the person who gives the magistrate his cases, the prosecutor, is not independent. His career depends on maintaining a good relationship with his superiors in the ministry of justice. If he gets the feeling that the ministry would prefer a particular case not to come to court, he can split it into two or more components, allocating each to a separate magistrate, possibly in different parts of the country. According to Renaud van Ruymbeke, one of France's most experienced magistrates, this saucissonnage is the reason we never hear of some very important cases.

When opening an investigation, the prosecutor defines its parameters and the examining magistrate must not go beyond them. If, during an investigation into a false invoice for 10,000, the magistrate discovers other invoices, he can't look into them, seize evidence or interview suspects without further permission from the prosecutor. In a politically sensitive case, his request will almost certainly be taken to the justice minister, who can sit on it for a few weeks and then simply refuse it. At no time is anyone obliged to say why they have made a particular decision.

This could either be really good, or be really bad. Depending on the political ties of the magistrate, these guys could have an overwhelming amount of evidence found against them, or a few stacks of paper and some junk e-mail. I don't know much about the French Ministry of Justice, and they seem to be the deciding factor in how this will turn out.

I'll make sure to post more as I unravel this situation.

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